Sunshine is a film about sacrifice. It’s a movie that asks the big questions and waits for the inevitable answer. It’s the kind of intellectually driven science fiction that Hollywood can’t be bothered to make nowadays. Instead of staying betrothed to the George Lucas School of Speculative Design, where everything is techno-wow and movie serial sodden, director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland have gone back to the original source of serious future shock – Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – and fashioned their own post-modern, post-punk space odyssey. The results resonate inside the brain in a way few films in recent memory can claim, awakening long dormant desire for truth and explanation. This is the kind of movie that stimulates debate as it mires us in the mysteries of the cosmos. It sings – and it also saddens.
Sunshine is also a movie about faces – culturally diverse and individually indelible faces. A real rarity in the world of forward filmic thinking (unless you are The Matrix), this global collection of scientists and scholars are out to achieve a single goal. It’s the year 2057 and the sun is dying. Hoping to jumpstart the giant star, an interplanetary mission known as Icarus I was sent out to plant a bomb inside the core. It was never heard from again. Now, Icarus II is retracing the previous crew’s path, hoping to complete the objective and discover what happened to the other vessel. A series of semi-serious incidents put the operation in jeopardy, and when they suddenly stumble upon the abandoned wreckage of Icarus I, all hope appears lost. Little do they know, but something else wants to prevent them from achieving their aims, and they won’t stop until everyone, everywhere, is dead.
While the narrative seems lifted from several other extraterrestrial epics (Alien, Event Horizon, Solaris), what Boyle and Garland accomplish here is nothing short of a miracle.They manage to allude to previous motion pictures and yet make the riffs and references seem wholly their own. You never doubt the impending threat facing the Icarus crew, and each individual crew member is so well defined that you understand the unreal pressures and personal quandaries they’re going through. This is a movie that demands you pay attention, that states its purpose clearly and convincingly, but doesn’t continuously backtrack to fill in all the blanks. Either you get it or you don’t, you identify the real danger to both astronauts and Earth, or you’ve long since zoned out, dulled by the filmmakers request that you think.
But if you situate your brain into it, if you avoid the laziness that comes with most Hollywood hackwork and draw your deeper thoughts around what Sunshine has to say, you’ll be rewarded with one of the greatest insular extravaganzas ever. One of this film’s most fascinating achievements is how it can conjure up real terror and solid suspense without an overwhelming amount of visual flash and/or CGI splash. Yes, the F/X are amazing, especially the varying versions of the sun in all its gaseous glory. But because it takes its time to establish the personalities of the people piloting the ship, as well as the gravity of the solar system’s extinction, we come to worry over every single thing that’s happening, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant.
Boyle relies on his brilliant cast to keep his constantly shuffling story elements in play, and they never let him down. Cillian Murphy as Robert Capa, the crew physicist and only man capable of controlling the nuclear payload being used to revitalize the star, is absolutely outstanding. At first, we fear he will be nothing more than a science-minded doormat, the kind of character who has the tight ethos, but lacks the fortitude to push his plan. Yet even when casual circumstances force him into the position of mission scapegoat, Murphy makes sure we see Capa’s calculated focus. It makes his last act switch into pseudo-action man mode all the more believable. Similarly, Fantastic Four’s Chris Evans is given the thankless role of being the ra-ra American smartass who thinks he has everything under control. Yet his performance shades the standoffish brute, bringing him back down to reality just long enough to help sort-of save the day.
Equally impressive are unusual turns by Hiroyuki Sanada as Captain Kaneda, Benedict Wong as navigator Trey, and Michelle Yeoh as brittle biologist Corazon. In a narrative made up of consistent crisis and considerations, these brilliant Asian performers each get a single sensational sequence to shine. This is especially true when Yeoh discovers life inside a burnt out interstellar terrarium. With Whale Rider’s Cliff Curtis as a shipboard psychiatrist who may be cracking up himself and Rose Byrne as the Icarus’ pilot and chief emotional sounding board, we end up with human beings instead of heritage, a collection of strong willed but basically breakable people who must face the ultimate question – how far will you go to try and save your fellow man?
This altruistic agenda, this “the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one” position may remind audiences of the whole Gene Roddenberry school of sci-fi scripture. But unlike the Star Trek take on the subject matter, Boyle and Garland want to strip away the nobility and focus on forgotten ideas like courage, fear, free will, and human error. The Icarus II becomes endangered because of a calculation blunder. The Icarus I imploded over ideas both spiritual and sinister. Sure, act three of this fine film can feel like a well thought out and brilliantly made horror show, complete with untimely death and unseen forces stalking our heroes, but our filmmakers are going for much more here. They are trying to tap directly into the make up of the individual mind, and deciphering what would make it snap – and then turn scary.
Luckily, Sunshine doesn’t supply simple answers. Like the overall complexity of its look and the authentic feel of its science, this is pristine puzzlebox asking for help in deciphering its hidden secrets. Such cinematic confrontation is unique, and argues for Boyle’s brilliance. A true renaissance filmmaker, seemingly capable of functioning well within any genre, his work here behind the camera is also impressive. Unlike the quick cut cacophony of his Trainspotting style, or the overcranked digital dread of 28 Days Later, there is a solemn, lax approach here, a matter of fact motion picture presentation that allows us to drink in the amazing art direction and awe-inspiring vistas. This is an incredible looking film, one that instantly draws you in and grabs your imagination. And thanks to the undercurrent of mental and cosmic disorder, we are left dangling dangerously over a precipice of perception that’s awfully hard to shake.
Yet, in the glow of a dying sun, we’ll still remember those faces – those determined, endearing facades forced into situations that no human being can possible fathom. How they manage such insurmountable stresses, how they retreat into themselves and discover hidden strengths and support is why Sunshine succeeds. You can have you space race dog fights with motion controlled starships laser blasting each other into carefully greenscreened oblivion. You can continue to believe that Star Wars is the final word in intergalactic excellence. As Danny Boyle and Alec Garland prove, there is much more to the genre than wookies and womp rats. Science fiction infers a level of intelligence – smarts that Sunshine delivers in droves.