Out today in the UK.
A space movie with smarts. Sumptuous photography. Breathtaking imagery. Great looking sets. A cast you can't take your eyes off. (Well, Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne and Michelle Yeoh, certainly). A script that mixes philosophy, psychology, with techno babble and scares, 2001 with Solaris, Event Horizon with Silent Running and a dash of Dark Star. Okay, so the first two thirds are terrific and then it goes a bit too Freddy Krueger towards the end. But do yourself a favour and check this one out. A big-budget British science fiction film. How often can you say that?
Here's a Q&A with director Danny Boyle.
What was it about Alex Garland’s SUNSHINE script that attracted you?
I’m a great believer in continuity and I felt that we should follow up 28 Days Later by working together again, and the premise of the script was so intoxicating. I think it’s true, nobody’s made a movie about the Sun, and it is the single thing that more important than any other thing. If it blinks out, we’re all dead in eight minutes and yet nobody’s made a film about it. And I thought, That’s fantastic. Obviously there’s also the idea of the psychological effects of that on these people and what they see as they draw close to the source of all life in the universe, which always got me.
Are space films a genre that interests you?
I love space films. I’m not a Star Trek kind of movie type person, but I am what I would call more elegant space films. I found myself at Contact and I found myself at Alien 4 when it opened.
What you and Alex did so successfully with 28 Days Later was take the horror genre and put your own spin on it. When you’re making a space film, a genre that has produced such classics as Alien, 2001 and Solaris, how do you, as a filmmaker, go about making it your own?
I don’t think about them that much when I’m making the film, even though we’re looking at them and we screened them, we screened Alien, we screened all sorts of films. You try and set off as innocently as possible and occasionally you collide with films and you think, Better not do that or Oh yeah, that would be good to actually gesture towards it. So you suffuse yourself in them and then you try and leave them behind a bit. The stricter premise, the reference premise is more what our production designer Mark Tildesley says, “It’s that 50 years thing.” Fifty years ago in London there were red buses, and you still see red buses today, and yet the place is completely different. And so there’s enough in the film that you feel familiar with, it’s not gone Star Trek, and so we based our research on NASA’s more kind of out reach programme, and so the Icarus II has plants to give oxygen, because that’s one of the biggest issues of space travel, how will we create oxygen to sustain life in space or on other planets, and that’s plants.
How did the film’s “more NASA than Star Wars” approach develop?
We did everything from meeting specialists, like our scientific consultant Brian Cox, to Richard Seymour whose a futurist designer, he’s a blue skies thinker for people like Ford and Phillips, and he invented the cordless kettle 20 years ago and he’s invented stuff that he thinks in 20 years time will be as familiar to us as the cordless kettle has become. He gave us an image of the future, a kind of 50 years image of the future, we went to meet him, Andrew, Alex and I went to meet him, and we talked to him and he showed us stuff and then he talked to the actors about it. Mark designs it but you steep yourself in lots of stuff from everybody and you steal stuff occasionally, and gradually things begin to emerge. This idea of the shield came out of very basic thinking about protection and then NASA research about materials and how you’d protect yourself from heat, from radiation, and that was gold leaf. It’s no good protecting yourself with solid lead, it would just melt straightaway, whereas gold leaf dissipates the heat away from the ship behind it. I remember that being a big discovery that seems terribly obvious, and then that lead to the space suit, you think that’s got to be gold, it wouldn’t be white like the NASA suit and then you develop, then you get courage from that and you think, Let’s change the helmet.
I am right in thinking that Moondust, Andrew Smith’s marvellous book about the Apollo astronauts, became something of a bible for you?
Oh yeah, I made everybody read that book; just wonderful. There’s one thing in it that’s in the film which is, one of the astronauts, when they landed on the Moon, said when they opened the door there was this burst of tiny little rainbows and it was atmospheric dust and condensation trapped in the door that got released as the door was opened. So there’s this moment where they open the door to go out and there’s all these condensation particles, that’s directly from his book and from an astronaut that told him that. I love stuff like that, that detail.
What did you learn from your visit to a nuclear submarine?
Obviously Das Boot was a big influence and initially we’re thought we’d make the Icarus II quite claustrophobic, but we didn’t make it claustrophobic in the end in the way Das Boot is, because your instinct tells you no, these guys are going to be out there for three years, they wouldn’t let them live in the conditions of Das Boot where in order to get past anybody you have stand up, they wouldn’t quite do that, but you wanted a feeling of that anyway. And when we went to look at the nuclear sub it wasn’t as bad as Das Boot because that’s 50, 60 years ago, so we kind of let it breathe a little bit, but you try to give it a sense of confinement as well within it, and to make them pasty faced and all that kind of stuff. But that was great. The biggest thing I found out on the nuclear submarine which was absolutely extraordinary — and there’s no direct way of getting this into the film but you tell the actors and hope it affects them mentally — when a crew goes on a nuclear submarine they have to make a choice before they leave, and the choice they have to make is, Do they want to be told bad news or not? And I just thought, psychologically, what an amazing thing. Because communication is basically one way, you can’t communicate back, nothing changes the mission, no individual, someone going mad is just locked up, somebody dies, the body’s put in storage, nothing changes the mission. They go out, they don’t know where they are, only three people on board know where they are, so they have to make this decision that if their wife or child dies or is really ill, do they want to know or not? They have to make that decision and I thought that was just incredible.
How sound is the science in SUNSHINE?
It’s pretty sound, obviously they’re not going to award the film a Nobel Prize because you have to abandon it sometimes, but the principle of it is sound though. Alex is very sound, obviously reads a lot of science, and it was basically sound and anything that wasn’t Brian Cox would tell us about and we would decide, we’ll follow that or change it to be like that or we’ll leave it to be like that, you know.
One of the themes of the film for me is, how arrogant science is, necessarily arrogant as well, thinking they can affect this thing. It’s insane, they can’t, but scientists really do think that at some point they will be able to. You talk with Brian Cox enough and you get this slight sense of they can do anything. And this Collider, this particle accelerator that they’re building in Geneva, they clearly think that they can find this particle that existed after the Big Bang. He said there is a less than ten per cent chance that it could create a black hole and you think, Wouldn’t that mean we’re all dead? And he said you won’t know anything about it, nobody will know anything about it, the whole galaxy will collapse into this black hole if it happens. He said it’s probably not going to happen, and anyway, when they exploded the first atom bomb they told Congress there was a small chance they could set the world on fire, the whole planet, and they decided to go ahead anyway. So you have to be vainglorious in that way.
Can you talk about the use of light in SUNSHINE.
It’s trying to find a way of representing the Sun and give the audience that sense of its power. And some of that power is through its whiteness. We tried to do that early on in the film, so you got a sense of its power, and then you just got the odd reminder and that was mostly through the character of Searle and the rest of the time we mostly kept it yellow. It was a big decision to keep it yellow and so we stripped the film of that hue, everything, designwise, you make sure there are no yellow note books lying around, that all the light is different from that yellow light, so you get starved of that yellow/red colour, that range, until you hit it, and then it’s overwhelming. It’s just a trick you do to try and come up with the enormity of it, the incomprehensibility of it. You want to overwhelm people, wash them in it. That’s what happens to the characters and then it’s about how they are psychologically affected by it.
Unlike most space films, there aren’t endless shots of the spaceship going by.
I wanted to do that just to focus on the eight people and although we didn’t use the claustrophobia of Das Boot, we wanted to create a sense of being trapped, hermitically sealed inside this unit, this ship, and they’re sealed inside it, and when you do step outside it, it is not an everyday thing. You’re meant to have every eight minutes the ship goes by, and I didn’t want to do that, so when you went outside, boy did you go outside and something very special was there. So again, you starve people of it in the hope that when they get it, when you get to eat it, it’s special.
The film raises some big spiritual and philosophical issues about the nature of the universe and our place in it, about the notion of man hurling himself out into the void only to journey into his own mind.
It’s a science versus God argument, if you like, in its essence, as a guy who explodes his bomb and literally stands inside his bomb as he explodes it, and he defiantly argues that he can change the universe, whereas God argues you can’t, this is my universe, if you like. The character of Pinbacker is meant to be there and not there, really. You could argue that’s he not there at all, that he’s an embodiment of the struggle in their own minds as they get close to the star.