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
Danny Boyle doesn’t reinvent or break new ground with an overused sci-fi premise, but he has created a beautiful and haunting film that sticks in your brain for some time.
Seven scientists aboard the spaceship “Icarus II” take on a dangerous space mission to fly a nuclear bomb into the heart of a dying sun in order to revive it. When they receive a distress beacon from the last shuttle that attempted this same mission, their lead physicist (Cillian Murphy) must decide whether to continue their mission to save billions of people on earth or divert their course to save any survivors from the earlier mission.
When Danny Boyle reinvented the zombie genre with “28 Days Later”, it seemed like he could do no wrong, and the thought of him exploring space and bringing his creative vision to the science fiction genre is reason enough to get excited about “Sunshine.”
It’s very much an ensemble piece, driven by dialogue and techno-babble that reveals the divergent personalities and complex relationships between seven astronaut scientists commissioned to save the world. Their difficult mission is put to the test when they decide to explore a distress beacon, seemingly from a previous attempt at the same mission. Things immediately begin to go wrong, putting the entire crew through tests of extreme hardship and forcing them to make even tougher decisions when their botanical oxygen supply explodes, leaving the ship with only enough oxygen for a reduced crew. Every rash decision makes it seem like they’re on a suicide mission.
That said, “Sunshine” isn’t the be-all end-all redefinition of the space opera genre one might expect from the man behind “28 Days Later”, but it is a mind-blowing visual treat, driven by the characters, the story and a moody tone that warrants favorable comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Those are daunting comparisons, but the number of similar and familiar elements make them unavoidable, and many lesser sci-fi efforts have explored similar themes, including two versions of “Solaris,” and lesser-known attempts like “Event Horizon,” “Red Planet” and “Mission to Mars.” Granted, it’s hard to be original when dealing with science fiction archetypes like the ship’s talking computer (possibly HAL’s cousin?) or having a ship’s crew argue whether to explore a rescue beacon from an abandoned ship. Boyle does try to find new ways to explore these ideas as he enters this new territory, but he never quite achieves the unique eclecticism as Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain.”
Regardless, Boyle is working with another solid cast with Cillian Murphy, star of Boyle’s “28 Days Later”, very much being the story’s lynchpin, though strong performances by Chris Evans and Cliff Curtis’ performance are equally important and memorable. It’s also notable for its superb script by Boyle collaborator Alex Garland that forces one to think about whether something like this might be possible and what you might do if put in a similar situation. It’s interesting to think about whether anyone would step up to the plate and sacrifice their own lives to save ours if the sun ever were to die, and it also deals with how our fascination and near-addiction to sunlight is exacerbated by the ship’s proximity as some of the crew become addicted with bathing in the powerful solar rays. It’s surprising that Boyle and Garland aren’t afraid to include the type of obligatory hero moments found in more mainstream sci-fi films, as various characters make personal sacrifices for the sake of the crew and for mankind as a whole.
What keeps the movie from being mere rehash of the sci-fi films mentioned above is the way Boyle’s stylish vision elevates the filmmaking with sophisticated camerawork and editing techniques, combined with amazing special effects that make the film’s solar setting more real. The scope of detail and design work put into the Icarus II with its enormous reflective shield that protects the ship from the sun’s powerful rays is equally impressive.
As things progress, Boyle throws a number of sharp twists at the viewer, some predictable to those familiar with the genre but others that might be harder to get your head around. By the third act, it has turned into an outer space slasher-thriller as the surviving crew are stalked by a mysterious killer, and they start dropping like flies by methods that have been foreshadowed earlier. It’s certainly an interesting turn of events, but it comes from so far out of left field that it might have you scratching your head, and the film’s ending is certain to be received with mixed reactions. While it’s commendable that Boyle finally gets away from what might be expected, it might go too far in a less than clear direction.
The Bottom Line:
While there isn’t as much originality to Danny Boyle’s first foray into science fiction as one might expect, there’s a great deal of depth to the visual design of the film and the structure and development of the storytelling, which ultimately makes “Sunshine” unique and worthwhile. While some of it might be too smart for non-MENSA members, the film is so gorgeous and haunting that you won’t feel bad wanting to see it again in order to understand some of the deeper aspects of the story.