I saw Danny Boyle‘s moody and stylish science fiction thriller Sunshine the other night. As with everything from Boyle—from heroin addicts to flatmates trying to murder each other to zombies to saints—it was…intense. The setup—a spaceship, inauspiciously called Icarus II, heading straight toward the sun—is perfect for overwhelming imagery, and Boyle takes full advantage of it. Alas, the plot didn’t really justify the intensity. I had a bit of an “oh, is that all?” reaction to some of the crucial plot devices. I think at the very end it wanted a bit of 2001-style transcendence, but couldn’t really get there. 2001 itself only did that by becoming more or less incomprehensible in its final reel, something Boyle (and screenwriter Alex Garland) weren’t quite willing to do, opting instead for a more standard thriller device (of which I’ll say no more). Oh well. Maybe this is a film best seen stoned, so that you wouldn’t have to worry about the plot at all.
I did appreciate the shout-outs to 2001, Alien, and best of all—wait for it—Dark Star (no beach balls or surfboards, though). Apparently there are also references to Solaris, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen—in the little bit of commentary I saw, Boyle said that no “serious science fiction movie” can escape the shadows of 2001, Alien, and Solaris.
Among the things I liked both most and least about Sunshine was its sound design. The sound was as overwhelming as the visuals were: Boyle hits you hard with both the music and the incidental grungy spaceship noises. The overall impact was, I think, intended to disconcert and annoy—I was reminded of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. And that it did, to great effect. I’m all for disconcerting annoyance, but what I didn’t like, in my pedantic nerdliness, was the fact that the exterior shots of the Icarus II were as noisy as the interiors. I can’t help compare that to 2001, where the exterior shots featured only silence, music (the initial exteriors of the Discovery are accompanied by a singularly beautiful piece from Aram Khatchaturian‘s ballet Gayne; it turned me on to Khatchaturian), and, during the ill-fated spacewalks, breathing. I understand that 2001‘s pristine and minimalist sound design would not have worked in Sunshine—I doubt it would work almost anywhere else; minimalism is hard, and I imagine it takes a Kubrick-like genius to pull it off—but it is the superior work of art.
This weekend on NPR I heard an interview with legendary sound guy Ben Burtt, the man who gave us the sounds of the light saber and R2-D2, and now WALL·E. Asked what movies he hadn’t worked on whose sound he admired, he named 2001, for its minimalism. I felt vindicated.