In a near future when human civilization is entirely powered by solar energy, the Earth’s sun suddenly vanishes from the sky. As temperatures across the planet plummet, and the atmosphere begins to dissipate, freelance astronomer Sun Yang (Zhang Jue) and his neighbour Chen Mu (Zhang Yue) struggle desperately to find a means of survival.
It is surprising that director Wen Ren’s
independent science fiction drama Last
Sunrise, in which humanity sees its last days thanks to the death of the
sun, has seen release so close to that of mega-blockbuster The Wandering Earth (2019) – in which pretty much an identical
catastrophe has such similar results. Thankfully each feature deals with the
end of the world in their own fashion. For The
Wandering Earth,it was with bombast
and explosions. For Last Sunrise,it is a much more melancholic and
thoughtful fashion; a style more suited to its modest budget.
The concept is interesting, and the
characters are reasonably engaging, yet the narrative feels uneven. It is high
on promise, but soon builds in an unfortunate number of coincidences and
convenient plot developments. Wen’s screenplay – written in collaboration with Min
Yu, Yankang Mei, and Yiqing Li – does its job, but leads the film to walk a
tightrope between intimate drama and ‘B’-grade potboiler.
The tone, though, Wen absolutely nails,
taking advantage of production limitations to give it a striking atmosphere.
Events – even violent ones – are largely understated, and the characters
quickly escape from the panic of the cities to a rural landscape. Once away
from the masses it becomes a lonely and eerily quiet affair, with hardly a
supporting character to be seen. It suits the film’s tone, but regularly feels
a little strange. The film’s digital effects strain the production budget, but
never become too garish or distracting. There is pallor of hopelessness over
everything, since there is no feasible way to escape a certain death within the
time available, but there is also an underlying sense of hope. Where are heroes
Yang and Me going if there is not a chance of survival?
Zhang Jue works hard at playing astronomer
Yang. On paper he is an unlikeable character, and certainly one that is
difficult with whom to engage. Zhang’s performance does the heavy lifting with
the character, giving him enough hesitant pauses and moments of indecision to
paint a more positive picture. Zhang Yue gives Yang’s neighbour Me a surfeit of
emotion that plays mostly on the surface: she is actively hopeful, despairing,
or even trying to find humour in the situation. It is more broadly played than
her co-star’s performance, but makes for a nice contrast.
Science, not unexpectedly, goes out of the
window. Once the sun disappears, Yang and Me have several days’ worth of
falling temperatures and a dissipating atmosphere to find shelter and safety.
It is likely temperatures would drop much more rapidly in real life than Wen’s
film suggests, shortening his narrative considerably. Later scenes involve
seeing other planets in the solar system hilariously close to the Earth. It
might look more dynamic, but anyone with a basic idea of astronomy will be
laughing at the film’s expense. The sun’s disappearance itself thankfully gets
a vague reason, one that is theoretical enough to escape the audience’s
scrutiny. Motion pictures are generally quite poor at making scientifically
accurate science fiction: real life is either too dull or undramatic, or it
would take minutes of valuable screen-time to satisfactorily explain. One
cannot be too hard on Last Sunrise for
choosing drama over accuracy. After all, Hollywood does it all the time.
The film has a fascinating relationship
with climate politics. It begins with a future civilization entirely dependent
upon solar power, and then specifically removes the source of that power to
drop everything back to pre-industrial state. In the film’s mid-section there
is a brief dalliance with the idea of using coal again – still a very popular
power source for China – before returning to renewables by the film’s
conclusion. There is a sense of solar power being criticised, and coal openly
mocked. It is not necessarily a deliberate commentary, but if it is it is a
somewhat muddled one.
Sunrise delivers a nice contrast to The Wandering Earth, while working with
a very similar starting point. It shows the breadth of science fiction cinema
possible in China, not simply in terms but approach but also in scale. It is
not a genre Chinese filmmakers have historically embraced, but it honestly
feels as if that attitude is in the process of changing.
Grant Watson is an independent film critic based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a two-time winner of the William Atheling Jr Award for Australian science fiction criticism and review. You can find his other reviews at FictionMachine and FilmInk.