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, saw 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.
Last 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.