It’s 2057, and, as Capa (Cillian Murphy) puts it, “Our sun is dying.” In order to restart the burning brightness and so, save the swiftly cooling earth, Capa has designed a stellar bomb, which he and seven other astronauts are about to deliver, aboard a ship called Icarus II.
Though the premise might make Danny Boyle’s Sunshine sound like another coming of Armageddon, it is, in fact, not an action flick. The humans’ dire situation is revealed alternately in long, slow takes and abrupt close-ups, faces taut with fear and unfeeling distant objects. Capa and his crewmates inhabit multiple spaces at once, vast and constricted, their mission simultaneously endless and over, their hopes bright and blasted. Capa, a physicist, measures their chances, plotting coordinates, checking periodically on the bomb (his bomb, he notes), and waiting. But even for all his measuring, you never know.
Or rather, you do. Visibly “influenced” by any number of well-known contemplative science fiction films, Sunshine recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solyaris and Solaris, even Event Horizon. It acknowledges upfront its debt to Alien when a crewmember jokes, on boarding a seemingly abandoned spaceship, that they may be “picked off by aliens one by one.” Ironic and poetic, Sunshine relies on past fictions to imagine its future, considering connections among temperament, philosophy, and ethics in its study of the crew’s disintegration. For they will indeed be “picked off,” by a range of forces, both alien and familiar, as they look for what lies beyond themselves.
The film’s focus on looking, on seeing as a form of self-expression, is established in its first scene, as Searle (Cliff Curtis), the ship’s psychiatrist, is introduced in the observation room. He looks out at the sun, their destination, filtered by the computer so as not to blind him. Still, he wants more. He negotiates with Icarus II (voiced by Chipo Chung), settling on 30 seconds of 3.1%, judged the maximum he might endure: the brightness is overwhelming, his face is burned harshly enough that it will peel for the rest of the film. And Searle is moved. He returns to the dining area, sharing his experience of seeing as being with his crewmates, insisting, “It’s invigorating, like taking a shower in light. You lose yourself a little.”
The notion of loss pervades Sunshine, even as the calculations of self are increasingly complex. Traveling for some 16 months already, the ship enters the “dead zone” at film’s start, losing all communication with earth (Capa sends a poignant message to his parents, assuming he won’t hear back from them: “I just wanted to let you know that I don’t need the message because I know everything you wanna say”) and looking into the unknown. This means the astronauts are on their own when they unexpectedly discover the first Icarus, gone missing seven years earlier (the ship’s distress signal was “lost in the background light and noise”). They debate wonder whether to check it out for survivors or pass it by. Practical-minded, mission-focused engineer Mace (Chris Evans) insists they do only what they’ve been assigned to do, but Searle suggests they recover its bomb and so increase the likely effectiveness of their own mission, which is, after all, the very last hope for earth.
Following each decision they make, their options dwindle, and the astronauts are increasingly at odds. Capa and Mace fall into a fierce, pointless physical altercation (inspiring pilot Cassie [Rose Byrne] to observe an “excess of manliness breaking out in the comm center”), biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) is keenly protective of her oxygen-producing, on-board greenhouse, and comm officer Harvey (Troy Garity) is quick to blame others for what goes wrong. As Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) tries to keep the crew on track, he faces loss of control and most importantly, loss of possibility. They know too well they are “expendable” in the pursuit of their mission, and worse, they can’t fathom what’s before them. So they fall back on assumptions, arguing, distrusting, and deceiving.
Per formula, the astronauts eventually realize that they do need one another, and their selfishness gives way to extraordinary selflessness. When Capa wakes from a nightmare in which he is falling, limbs flailing and screams excruciating, into the surface of the sun. Cassie sits beside his bed, and describes the image for him, as she shares it. “Only dream I ever have,” she says, “Every time I close my eyes, it’s always the same.” This terrible fate — too-bright and scary, insistently subjective but also, according to Cassie, mutual — is increasingly elided with those of the other astronauts, even though each dies alone, “picked off.”
Their ends are both grisly and strangely lyrical: one crewmember floats off into space, blood shattering in the freezing vacuum; another slices his own wrists, red splatter everywhere in a stark white room; still another is lost in the extreme heat and light of an observation deck, turned ashy in an instant. Certainly harrowing, these images also intimate a certain harmony with an implacable universe, individuals refigured as immeasurable particles: “80% of all dust is human skin,” Searle observes, even as he and his mates confront unutterable loss.
The narrative that effects such remarkable imagery is less magnificent, a hackneyed mix of old “mad bomber” and “god complex” plots. But you know the plot almost as soon as Sunshine begins, its predictability underscoring Cassie’s point about her dream and Capa’s, “always the same.” Imagining the universe through one man’s eyes, the movie uses Murphy’s brilliant blue eyes and seductive androgyny to set a starting point, both luminous and uncanny. From here, Sunshine suggests, vision is ever mutable.