Salvage This

So the other day I was watching Danny Boyle’s SF disaster movie ‘Sunshine’ for the umpteenth time—not because it’s great, though it does have great moments—and I realised why I have such a love/hate relationship with this film (and others like it).

It starts off brilliantly. The multicultural crew of the Icarus II is en route to the sun with a massive nuclear payload designed to re-start our dying star. It’s humanity’s last shot at saving Earth because the payload constitutes the majority of our natural resources. If it fails, it’s sayonara Old Blue. Interesting characters, intelligent discussions, impressive SFX: it’s one of the better SF films of recent years for about half its running time, then…

They find the Icarus I, derelict, floating around Mercury, and they make a reeeeally numbnuts decision that leaves me throwing things at the screen every time. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say a smart SF story vents IQ points at startling velocity as the mystery of the Icarus I unfolds. By the end, it’s a completely different movie, and not in a good way.

And it perfectly illustrates my gripe with this SF story trope. The finding of a derelict/abandoned spaceship scenario is one of my favourites in any genre. Period. It has everything: mystery, suspense, adventure, opportunity for character conflict, heroics, opportunity for smart deductions, startling revelations. I tend to use the word “opportunity” a lot when talking about this because, and I’ll be honest here, I desperately want these movies to be good. So much so that I’ll rewatch them just to imagine how good they could have been.

So why are they usually so disappointing? Or more often than not, godwaful?

Event Horizon—poor dialogue, thin characterisations, silly explanation, cheap third act monster/slasher

Pandorum—poor dialogue, thin characterisations, terrible direction, borderline incomprehensible plot, cheap third act monsters/slasher

Supernova—poor dialogue, thin characterisations, terrible direction, silly plot twist, cheap third act monster/slasher

Lost in Space—poor dialogue, thin characterisation, silly plot twist, cheap third act monster/slasher

Sunshine—silly revelation, cheap third act monster/slasher

2010—intelligent script, characters, interesting plot twists, fascinating third act revelation

Kinda says it all when your best example of a mystery story trope is a sequel, and a sequel to one of the most plot-light films ever made. 2010 is good, though, because it steers away from the daftness the others seem to revel in.

Another great example is Alien, though only twenty minutes or so of that are spent on the derelict (crashed) spaceship. The third-act monster is handled superbly, which proves that that can be a viable story payoff in this scenario; unfortunately, not one of the other films listed comes close to pulling it off. The spider-man at the end of Lost in Space has to be the worst, but for my money Sunshine’s offender is the most egregious because it completely ruins an otherwise commendable movie. It’s as if the moment the scriptwriters reach a abandoned spaceship, they fill their oxygen masks with dumb-air and get high on it.

A smart filmmaker needs to adapt Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama as soon as possible. Seriously, that would blow our collective minds in 3D. And they need to do it soon because I’m running out of things to throw at my screen.

Can you think of any other movies featuring a derelict/abandoned spaceship? Are they any good?


  1. It’s almost a physical pain when I think about ‘Sunshine.’ The first part of the film I was so tense, so edge-of-my-seat involved, fascinated by the characters, completely immersed and caring so damn hard, and then…that happened. Oh, Danny Boyle. Why did you do it? It could have been one for the ages.

    1. I’m totally with you. At first I thought Boyle was embarrassed by it because of the way he blurred and distorted Crispy Guy in every shot. But now I’m convinced he honestly thought he was being innovative. He should never go near SF again after that third-act.

  2. Ah, the Mary Celeste Scenario. How about the Firefly episode “Bushwhacked”?

  3. Good one, Jen. I’ll have to watch that episode again–it’s been too long since I visited Firefly.

  4. I really, really disliked Event Horizon. It had so much potential then it went way off track. Ugh. I’d love a movie like that, except… you know, with a reasonable story that doesn’t jump the track into horror/slasher (which is fine, except not in a movie where you expect something else entirely).

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