Friday, August 3, 2007

It came from where the sun don't shine

Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans in Danny Boyle's Sunshine.

Now I've never see The Beach, Danny Boyle's notorious career-killer which shot down Leonardo DiCaprio's star for a few years - but I always wondered, really, given this director's career highs (Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later), how low could he go? Sitting through (most of) Sunshine, however, gave me some idea - particularly given this jitterily turgid piece of sci-fi tripe still rates 72% fresh on - while The Beach scores a Bush-level 19%.

The mind boggles - could any movie be that much worse than Sunshine, a kind of Frankenstein's monster cynically stitched together from picturesque bits of SF classics? I have to give Boyle high marks, at least, for the speed with which he baits and switches - we get the space-garden from Silent Running, the airlock stunt from 2001, the monster-picking-off-the-crew gambit from Alien, the ghost ship of Event Horizon (the one movie in this bunch that Sunshine is better than), and the dreamy, going-mental-metaphysics of Solaris all in quick succession, with little attempt at any hook to the film's putative plot, which has something to do with honey-dipping the sun with a nu-cu-lar bomb. There are recurring nods to Boyle's recurring mood of doomy, smack-addict hunger/dread; the sun seems to represent the ultimate junkie orgasm, toward which everything must converge - a burning, squirming eye-of-God with looks that literally kill (see above).

Still, the plagiarism of Sunshine has at least dug up some interesting factoids about one of its sources - the famous airlock sequence in 2001, in which Dave faces a vacuum sans space helmet to defeat the nefarious HAL. Kubrick geeks - and geeks in general - have long debated the actual odds of Dave's survival (in the movie, of course, he makes it, and HAL is soon a memory board sans memory). They've also debated how, exactly, one might die from exposure to a vacuum - would the sudden drop in external pressure make your body fluids boil right out of you? Would you explode? Or would you freeze? Or would you suffocate before freezing or exploding?

Keir Dullea in the airlock sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Well, it turns out we do have a little data on this particular burning-vs.-freezing schoolyard debate. During a 1965 accident at NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center, a test subject's space suit tore open while in a vacuum chamber, and he was exposed to pressures lower than 1 psi (not quiiiite a vacuum, but close enough for government work). The subject did not, thank God, explode, but lost consciousness after 14 seconds - the chamber began re-pressurizing one second later, and he shortly revived. The subject did not sustain any long-term injury - although he reported that his last memory was of saliva sizzling off his tongue (the beginning of that bodily-fluid boil due to low pressure).

So, you wouldn't explode (at least not right away) - but then that test subject wasn't exposed to the bottom-of-the-barrel Kelvin temperatures Dave would have encountered in space. But interestingly, that kind of cold won't kill you for at least a minute or two (your skin is actually that good an insulator). So 2001 basically gets it right - especially since Dave repressurizes the airlock after just 12 seconds (yes, I timed it). The one flaw in the movie is that Dave seems to hold his breath just before blowing open the hatch (which then, conveniently, seems to disappear). That's a no-no; remember this next time you're facing a vacuum - the sudden expansion of "held breath" would rupture your lung tissue. Given that you're not holding your breath, how long could you hope to survive in space? Experts guess at least half a minute. Of course, if you're a character in Sunshine, and you've just torn your gold lamé, Liberace-as-samurai space suit (above left), you may hope the end is quicker.

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