Now available on DVD
Cillian Murphy as Capa
Rose Byrne as Cassie
Chris Evans as Mace
Cliff Curtis as Searle
Chipo Chung as Icarus
Troy Garity as Harvey
Hiroyuki Sanada as Kaneda
Mark Strong as Pinbacker
Benedict Wong as Trey
Michelle Yeoh as Corazon
Paloma Baeza as Capa’s Sister
Archie Macdonald as Capa’s Nephew
Sylvia Macdonald as Capa’s Niece
Directed by Danny Boyle
It might seem odd to regard science fiction as an underdog genre because at glance, it seems like so much of our current pop culture revolves around science fiction. After all, wasn’t the biggest movie of this past holiday season the Richard Matheson adaptation “I Am Legend?” Yes, but that’s just one film. “3:10 To Yuma” was out last year, too â did that make 2007 a banner year for westerns? I think people perceive science fiction as being bigger than it actually is simply because they’ve become accustomed to what currently passes for science fiction â films like “AVP: R” or “Transformers.”
But Danny Boyle’s criminally under seen “Sunshine” is a reminder of what a hard sell real science fiction has become â with the genre finding a more welcome home on TV in recent years thanks to shows like “Battlestar Galactica.” Re-teaming Boyle with novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”), “Sunshine” is an unabashed love letter to the classic science fiction films of the â60s and â70s (John Carpenter’s 1974 “Dark Star” scores a shout out with one character dubbed Pinbacker, in reference to Dan O’ Bannon’s Sgt. Pinback).
Detailing the space-faring journey of Icarus II on their way to the heart of the sun, “Sunshine” is set in the year 2057 when the sun is dying and our planet is dying right along with it. Armed with a potential solution, the crew of Icarus II is carrying a thermonuclear bomb the size of Manhattan that they plan to detonate inside the sun to reignite it. If they fail, the Earth will plunge into permanent global winter.
Given that the name of this ship is Icarus II, we know upfront that this voyage is primed for disaster. For one, naming the vessel you’re traveling to the sun in after the ill-fated Icarus of Greek mythology is no good luck charm. You’d think that “Prometheus” might’ve been a more appropriate tag but as Boyle mentions on his commentary track, the choice to call the ship Icarus was intended to remind the crew of their humility and that “failure was the most likely outcome”. More importantly, the II means that this is the second gang of schmucks sent to pull this solar stunt off â with Icarus I being lost with no indication as to its fate.
The crew manning this expedition is led by Hiroyuki Sanada (who genre fans might remember from Ringu) as Captain Kaneda. Under his command are “28 Days Later’s Cillian Murphy as physicist Capa, Chris Evans (the Human Torch from the “Fantastic Four” films) as ship’s engineer Mace, Rose Byrne as pilot Cassie, Cliff Curtis as psychiatrist Searle, Troy Garity as communications officer Harvey, Benedict Wong as navigator Trey, and Michelle Yeoh as ship’s botanist Corazon. While the writing behind these characters isn’t especially strong, the performers all bring a convincing naturalism to their roles. Their relationships and interactions all feel believably lived in â and with a movie like this, that’s half the battle.
Before long, Icarus II’s journey goes awry. They detect a signal from the lost Icarus I and â against the advice of Mace â go off course to investigate. Followers of science fiction and horror films will note the clichÃ© immediately. There’s always a distress call in movies like this and it never turns out to be a smart idea to investigate it. And as “Sunshine” unfolds, we see that as much as it’s been dressed up with the trappings of hardcore science (University of Manchester physicist Brian Cox served as one of the film’s advisers), Alex Garland’s script still runs through all the clichÃ©s you’d expect to see in a movie like this.
Thanks to Garland’s generic leanings, “Sunshine” flies closer to the B-movie orbits of “Deep Star Six,” “Leviathan,” and “Event Horizon” than its makers would care to consider (when a director namechecks Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” as an influence, they probably don’t want to hear how much their film cribs from the work of George Cosmatos and Paul W. S. Anderson) yet character types and plot points from all the aforementioned films can be recognized here (Benedict Wong is essentially playing Miguel Ferrer’s character from “Deep Star Six,” for instance, and Pinbacker recalls Sam Neill’s character from “Event Horizon”). But “Sunshine” is such a beautifully shot pulp concoction that its script deficiencies can â and I believe should be â largely overlooked.
To say that a film offers style over substance is usually a backhanded compliment but style shouldn’t be so readily discounted in assessing a film’s success. A knock against Ridley Scott’s “Alien” when it was originally released was that it was nothing but a film that brought an enormous sense of style to a story that was little more than a rehash of “It: The Terror From Beyond Space.”
But yet the style that Scott brought to that film elevated the material and so to does Boyle’s style elevate “Sunshine.” Only the most churlish viewer could judge this film without taking its often-breathtaking visuals into consideration. Prior to watching “Sunshine,” I’d forgotten what it was like to be floored by the imagery of a science fiction film. And much of what’s impressive here has little to do with overblown special effects but rather with the way Boyle conveys the scope and grandeur of the environments we’re seeing (and the contributions of composer John Murphy and the band Underworld in lending power to these images can’t be underestimated). Boyle even finds a way to make the introduction of a stock boogeyman in the last act seem more interesting than it otherwise would’ve by realizing this character’s presence with a clever visual conceit.
While it’s too arty to ever have connected with a mass audience (which, given how exciting this film is, makes for a sad comment on contemporary audiences), it’s still a shame that “Sunshine” was thrown so indifferently into theaters. I believe that once fans discover this on DVD and see Boyle’s visuals, this’ll be the one film from last year that people will most wish they’d seen in the theater. I know I feel gypped, at least. But even if it didn’t get a warm reception during its theatrical run, “Sunshine” still shines as a bright spot on the recent genre landscape.
Audio commentary by Danny Boyle: Boyle proves to be an engaging speaker, holding court without a pause, covering all the bases of the production. Boyle addresses the practical challenges the film’s sci-fi subject matter presented (mentioning he initially wanted no stars in the space scenes but relented after realizing how impossible it is to convey motion without them), the contributions of the cast, character motivation, and the classic science fiction films that influenced his approach.
Audio commentary by Dr. Brian Cox: As you might expect, this talk from one of “Sunshine’s scientific advisers is not the liveliest audio commentary you’ll ever listen to. But yet it is informative. Will many viewers give the entire talk a listen? Doubtful â but its inclusion is still appreciated.
Deleted Scenes: Little was apparently cut from “Sunshine” as only seven scant deleted scenes appear here. Most interesting is the alternate climax where emphasis is placed on conversation between the remaining characters rather than on the action that dominates the final version.
Web Production Diaries: These informal, web-based production diaries (twenty-two in total, plus an introduction by Boyle) offer a complete picture of “Sunshine’s production.
Short Films: This is a curious extra as neither of these short films have content that relates to “Sunshine” but as Boyle explains, the idea of including short films on DVD appeals to him because films like these otherwise would have little way to reach an audience. Given the high quality of both films â “Dad’s Dead”, directed by Chris Shepherd and “Molehills”, directed by Dan Arnold â it’s hard to fault their placement here.
Rounding out the extras is “Sunshine’s striking theatrical trailer. Fox Searchlight may not have given this movie the push it deserved in theaters but they’ve awarded its DVD debut a satisfying package.