Danny Boyle: One act short of a masterpiece

A closer look at my two favourite Danny Boyle films – and how they could have been even better.

As one of Britain’s most prominent directors in recent years, Danny Boyle has been responsible for numerous hits. From the drug-addled mania of ‘Trainspotting’ to the Oscar-conquering vibrance of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, Boyle has shown his range and ambition in direction, time and time again. My two favourite films of his are ‘28 Days Later’ (2002) and ‘Sunshine’ (2007). I’ll probably have to discuss some finer plot points here so if you haven’t seen either film – go and watch them first!

Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures

‘28 Days Later’ stars Cillian Murphy as a man who wakes up four weeks after an infectious virus has already swept through and devastated vast swathes of Britain. ‘Sunshine’, set in 2057, shows a team of astronauts with a mission to reignite a dying sun, using a nuclear fission bomb.

Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures

What these both share are masterful first and second acts but disappointing third acts. A three act structure can be most simply broken down into exposition, the heightening of action/developing of character arcs and the resolution of action/characters. So in the case of ‘28 Days Later’, the first act concerns Cillian Murphy’s ‘Jim’ discovering the outbreak of infection, four weeks after it’s taken place, the second act shows a burgeoning family dynamic between Jim and three other survivors, while the third act involves the survivors witness the effect that a societal breakdown has had on others. In ‘Sunshine’, we are introduced to the characters and their mission – to reignite the dying sun with a nuclear bomb. This is followed by a series of events which puts the whole mission in jeopardy, culminating in a third act which sees the surviving crew members hunted down by the twisted captain of a previous mission with the same objective as theirs.

In both cases, the movies climaxes suffer from shifts which are very jarring in nature, be it tonal or plot shifts. Fundamentally, whether intentional or not, Boyle strips back what makes each film so effective and enjoyable up to that point. 

Image result for 28 days later
Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures

In the case of ‘28 Days Later’, we see Naomie Harris concede her pessimistic ideology that in a zombie apocalypse, people only exist to slow you down – posing barriers to your own survival. She accepts that sometimes, what pleasures in life can still be enjoyed are more important than simply living a fraught existence. Consequently, we’re treated to an endearing, albeit bizzarre, makeshift family, a family which is torn apart as quickly as it comes to exist, a family which is then subjected to the darkest depths of human depravity. Meanwhile, ‘Sunshine’ quickly transitions from a hauntingly beautiful study of the human mind, using the ever-present sun as a backdrop for this examination, into a somewhat generic monster/slasher horror movie, complete with a pretty predictable outcome. 

In both cases, this ruthless directorial style of pulling the rug from beneath the audience’s previously comfortable viewing is one that doesn’t sit right with me and in both cases, lessens what would otherwise be two close to perfect movies. And I wouldn’t say this is just a case of me being a sucker for a happy ending. If done right, a more bittersweet or even morose ending can be fantastic. This just isn’t the case here as though both films end on generally positive notes, neither wholly possess what made them so good during their first two acts. Regardless, these are still two bloody good films – particularly ‘Sunshine’ which before the final 30 or so minutes, was edging towards perfection, making the final 30 minutes all the more frustrating. 

28 Days Later: 8/10
Sunshine: 9/10

Featured Image Copyright VIANNEY LE CAER/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

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2 comments

  1. I respected both films for being slow burners – there’s nothing wrong with slow pacing if it’s for the benefit of plot and character arcs. The finales of both these films feel comparatively rushed compared to the beginning and middle parts. So I’d just aim for continuity really, building on what made both so good to begin with as opposed to completely shifting gears,

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