In George Romero's The Crazies (1973), a deadly chemical weapon is accidentally released, causing an outbreak of horrific, random violence. The military's reaction is swift and sure. Ordered to transport the first relevant scientist they can find to the scene of the accident, the army does just that, thus isolating the one man who might be qualified to find a cure in the middle of a disaster area with primitive facilities. When the scientist argues, the GIs who are renditionising him refuse him any contact with their superiors and threaten him with force if he fails to comply.
In John Wyndham's novel The Day of the Triffids, derided by Brian Aldiss as a "cosy catastrophe", the hero speculates that the plague of blindness which has afflicted the human race might be the result of a military accident. After many ordeals and difficulties, he and his friends isolate themselves in a rural farmhouse, try to keep the deadly plants at bay and hope mainly to be left alone. When the British army turns up, it is to inform the hero that the land at his disposal can feed twenty "units" (blind people) provided they are fed on mashed triffids, and to renditionise the little girl whom he loves as a daughter. He and his adopted, extended "family" immediately do the sensible thing and clear out, having sugared the soldiers' petrol tanks to forestall pursuit.
Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) is essentially a remake of The Crazies in which the talent and imagination have gone into the CGI effects rather than the script. It is not a bad film, but there is no particular reason to see it more than once, and in a pinch even the once can be dispensed with at no very great loss. The most potentially interesting characters (a troop of animal rights activists and a team of scientists experimenting with the rage virus) appear only in the film's brief prologue, as Boyle and his screenwriter Alex Garland ditch every interesting possibility raised by their theme - righteous anger versus scientific objectivity, animal rights versus military necessity, antisocially intense emotion as a subject of rational inquiry, and so forth - in favour of a conventional disaster-movie plot with some ordinary decent folks as characters. Towards the end, the institutionalised stupidity and callousness depicted by Romero and Wyndham is updated into a quarter-barrel of rotten apples consisting of a psychotic major and a handful of squaddies who can't even shoot straight enough to injure the hero fatally. The surviving characters isolate themselves in a rural farmhouse and, when our boys in blue come looking, rush out joyously to announce their presence. For all his middle-class characters and 1950s outlook, John Wyndham is a good deal more frightening, not to mention subversive, than 28 Days Later even tries to be.
Boyle and Garland's Sunshine is in many ways much better than 28 Days Later; but in other, possibly more significant ways, it is also much more disappointing and much more annoying. It starts with a voiceover in which Capa (Cillian Murphy) explains the premise, namely that the sun is dying and that he and his crewmates aboard the Icarus II have been sent to re-ignite it using a bomb with the mass of Manhattan. Offhand, I can think of only three contemporary writer-directors who use voiceovers to enrich their films, rather than summarise them for the mentally Hollywood: Stanley Kubrick, Paul Schrader and, best of all, Terrence Malick. Boyle and Garland may have some little way to go before they join this august company; and, true to the Hollywood form, Capa's voiceover is totally unnecessary, since all the information he gives us can quite easily be gathered from the dialogue and action.
Still, for about two-thirds of its running time, Sunshine is a highly watchable, entertaining and even intelligent film, raising a number of intriguing possibilities. They are all dumped, but they are at least dumped after sixty minutes rather than, as happened in 28 Days Later, after six minutes. One of the crew spends much of his time simply staring at the sun which, dying or not, can only be viewed at two per cent of its actual brightness. When the first, lost Icarus expedition turns out to have been sabotaged by a religious maniac, an intriguing argument between sun-worship and Jehovah-worship might have come about. Garland and Boyle, having raised this idea, promptly drop it. When the Icarus II suffers a disastrous loss of oxygen, there is some argument about the demands of the mission versus the right not to be killed in order to preserve one's crewmates. Garland and Boyle skate over the issue by arranging a convenient suicide and a few murders.
There are, as I have said, many fine touches in Sunshine, not least in the number of cold, dark deaths which take place closer to the sun than man has ever gone before; but Garland's creative laziness causes an appalling fizzle at the end. The murders are committed by the last survivor of the Icarus, a broiled religious lunatic called Pinbacker. Sunshine plunders a number of better films for imagery and plot points; sometimes rather neatly, as with the leap across space pioneered by Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and sometimes rather crassly, as with the name Pinbacker, a pointless and inapt reference to Carpenter's Dark Star. Pinbacker manages to sabotage the mainframe computer aboard the Icarus II by lifting it out of its coolant and causing it to overheat - has the future never heard of access codes? Pinbacker is given no background or characterisation at all; we get no hint of his past and therefore no tragedy; he has almost no dialogue, and thus no possibility of insane but insidiously persuasive argument; nothing but some rather silly old-dark-house-style chasing around, followed by Friday the Thirteenth in space while Boyle, apparently pushed to his imaginative limit, throws in a lot of freeze-frames. These scenes are a tedious, galumphing, deplorably unenterprising insult to the viewer's intelligence, and they almost completely dissipate the impressive effect of the scenes which have preceded them.
As readers of my fiction will testify, I am not one of literature's great masters of plot; but I spent much of the last act of Sunshine thinking how I could have developed it better myself, quite possibly on a lower budget. It bothered me enormously to see so many interesting ideas quite simply thrown away.