Considering the filmmaking past of Danny Boyle, I went into Sunshine with some serious jitters. Semi-niche films like Trainspotting and The Beach can be forgiven for slight missteps, while horror films like 28 Days Later aren’t expected to be masterpieces. But taking on the world of science fiction, with heavyweight films lurking in every corner? If Boyle screwed up even one iota with Sunshine, the film would fall apart fast. To my pleasant surprise, Sunshine delivered in its storytelling and its premise, leaving little wonder why 20th Century Fox chose the film to be its inaugural Blu-ray Profile 1.1 release. Now if only Boyle would have gone back and done a “director’s cut” that eliminated the filters and visual effects from the film’s last 10 minutes….
Sunshine opens with a crew of scientists and pilots embarking upon what appears to be a United Nations-endorsed mission to the sun, which is slowly dying and freezing Earth in the process. The crew’s goal: deliver a nuclear bomb (with the mass of Manhattan Island!) to a coronal hole, ignite said bomb, and pray that the “little big bang” the bomb creates will re-awaken the sun and bring heat back to the Earth.
As the movie progresses, we discover that the Icarus spaceship on which the crew is traveling is not the first such craft, and that Earth has mined all its resources to create this second ship. The Icarus 2 is, quite literally, Earth’s last hope. As they pass the planet Mercury, the crew miraculously discovers the ill-fated Icarus 1 floating in space. After a series of onboard snafus that reduce their resources, they decide to alter course and scavenge Icarus 1 for supplies — and the ship’s still-undetonated bomb. Two shots at saving Earth are better than one, right?
So far, so sci-fi good. But this is where Sunshine requires more suspension of disbelief. Although the crew of the first Icarus has long since died, the mission’s hyper-religious and maniacal captain has somehow survived (albeit looking like Freddy Kruger), and is obsessed with sabotaging the mission of the Icarus 2. You can sense some of Boyle’s recent penchant for scare tactics and ethical dilemmas from this point on, and by and large, the psychological effect is quite good. However, the psychological effects of the story are augmented by an unbearable, distracting and unnecessary amount of filters and blur effects which make the film’s climax actually more frustrating to watch than it is enjoyable.
As a Blu-ray Disc release, these filters may look crisp and saturated given the film’s AVC 1080p encoding, but the fact that they’re there is still annoying. One of the reasons they stand out, in fact, is that the rest of the film is shot with such gorgeous cinematography and lighting that these last-minute special effects seem out of place and cheap. Since the film takes place in the sun’s general ZIP code, you can imagine that the contrast and differences in colors within each scene can be quite intense. Fortunately, the film’s AVC encoding delivers incredibly sharp edges in the highest-contrast scenes, making them a treat when the spaceship passes by the sun or characters walk past brightly lit equipment. Unfortunately, close-ups on character’s faces, particularly in the scenes that are intentionally washed-out (almost grayscale), don’t fare nearly as well. In addition, the brightest scenes show a surprising amount of film grain, even as the deep blacks and midtones — the scenes most susceptible to grain — fare quite well.
As Fox’s premier Profile 1.1 Blu-ray Disc, Sunshine shows the capabilities of Profile 1.1 in two distinct ways. Unfortunately, only one of the Profile 1.1 bonus features is compelling. The first feature Profile 1.1 feature is Journey Into Sound, which lets viewers watch four brief scenes featuring either the voice of Icarus (the on-board AI) or the voice of crazy captain Pinbacker. After starting each one-minute scene, viewers see a diagram at the bottom of the screen representing each of the five channels in the 5.1 surround-sound setup. By pressing one of the buttons on the Blu-ray remote (or moving the thumbstick on the PS3’s Sixaxis controller), viewers can determine in real time which channel will broadcast the voice, thus (theoretically) seeing how changes to the audio track can change the film-watching experience. Although the technology behind these real-time changes is cool, the actual manipulation of channels gets old after one cycle through all five channels. Translation: this is a novelty feature more than a practical one.
The second Profile 1.1 feature fares much better, but it’s ironically the least inventive of the two. A Brilliant Vision: Enhanced Viewing Mode shows Blu-ray owners what HD DVD owners have experienced for a while now: picture-in-picture bonus feature displays. While the main movie plays, viewers have the option of activating 10 different behind-the-scenes featurettes highlighting an aspect of production during the scene at hand. These featurettes popup like a VH1 Popup Video bubble, show their content and then disappear as quickly as they surfaced. When these featurettes pop up, the main audio track for the movie decreases in volume by about 50 percent while the featurette becomes the dominant audio. Because of this, this feature is best watched once viewers have sat through the film once uninterrupted. There’s also the option to watch the featurettes independently of the film itself, a nice, considerate touch from Fox.
What wasn’t quite as considerate was the inclusion of opening and closing “credits” in every single one of the Web Production Diaries (approx. 35:00). These 22 individual diaries average about 1:35 each and range from mini bios for each of the main actors to behind-the-scenes footage of the cast going for their first Zero-G flight in preparation for the film. The most compelling of these features is “The Science of Space Travel Physiology,” which discusses the effects of space travel on the bones and heart, but it also happens to be the 15th Diary, at which point (if you watch them all back to back to back) you’ll be so sick of the “Sunshine” logo and “all rights reserved 20th Century Fox” graphics that you’ll just about want to send the disc to space yourself — via potato gun.
The 13 Deleted Scenes (18:54) all include optional commentary with Danny Boyle, and although most of them are slow-moving sequences (which is why they were deleted, says Boyle), a few of them would have been nice to see in an extended edition. The two Short Films (7:35 and 7:06) on the other hand, should have been deleted from memory altogether. I’m not one to squelch creativity, but the only connection to Sunshine that these two films have is that they were directed or produced by members of the Sunshine crew. There’s no sci-fi hook, nothing about sun, and no characters from the film. Heck, the second film, “Mole Hills,” is comprised of nothing more than watching fake mole hills slowly deteriorate on a time-lapsed sidewalk — for six minutes. Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up. I tried, and failed.
Fortunately, the core movie of Sunshine is good enough and the picture-in-picture functionality compelling enough that you can probably overlook the occasional film grain and horrid mashing-together of the Production Diaries. With an original plot, great acting and a decent Blu-ray presentation, Sunshine is a great entree for Fox into the realm of Blu-ray Profile 1.1, and it would make a good entree for Blu-ray owners as well.
– Jonas Allen