If I were trying very hard to get a blurb from my review quoted in future advertisements for the film, I might say that Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s Sunshine does for science-fiction what their 28 Days Later did for the zombie movie. Or that it’s probably the best science-fiction movie in, I don’t know, forever. In both cases I’d be exaggerating, of course (I haven’t actually seen every single science-fiction movie ever made), but honestly, not by all that much.
As they Boyle and Garland did with 28 Days Later, the team takes a well-worn, dead end, nigh self-cannibalizing genre and elevate it to the level of elegant, poetic art film, seemingly reinventing it in the process. The bar for good sci-fi is exceedingly low, of course, since films that assign themselves to this genre generally don’t have much in the way of science in them, instead focusing on aliens, robots, spaceships and, occasionally, Vin Diesel. And those with plots similar to Sunshine‘s, movies where a group of scientists and explorers must embark on a plan so crazy it just might work to save the world like Armageddon or The Core, are generally soul-destroyingly bad.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Sunshine‘s plot, as laid out in a few sentences of voiceover by Cillian Murphy’s skinny physicist Capa in the first minute of the film, is pretty simple. The sun is going out, as it someday must, and it’s taking life on Earth with it. In response, humanity built a gigantic spaceship that they gave the self-jinxing name of Icarus (Um, scientists of the future? Icarus went down in flames and died when he tried to fly to the sun) and loaded it with a bomb the size of Manhattan, a bomb that, once delivered to the surface of the sun, will theoretically reignite it.
That mission disappeared seven years ago, so Murphy’s eight-person team is making a second, final attempt to reignite the sun aboard Icarus II, which speaks HAL-like to the crew. These include Capa’s friend Rose Byrne, his rival Chris Evans, ship psych officer Cliff Curtis, commander Hiroyuki Sanada, gardening expert Michelle Yeoh, crew douchebag Troy Garity and sweaty mathematician Benedict Wong.
When the team discovers an x-factor along the way that causes them to rethink part of their mission, things start to slowly spiral out of control. Director Boyle seems to half-reference every similar movie ever made, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Event Horizon, from some of the Star Treks to Alien, and from Solaris to The Abyss. To his credit, Sunshine may occasionally feel familiar, but it never seems the least bit derivative, as the crypto-allusions are transcended by the execuction.
It’s a beautiful looking film, and Boyle and cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler lens the hell out of Mark Tildesley’s clean, lived-in sets, while filling it with memorable imagery–a silhouetted figure appearing skeletal by standing in front of the sun, close-ups of eyeballs, a human body freezing and shattering in space–imagery that gets increasingly tricky as the crew find themselves in scary situations, and when the massive gravity of the sun begins playing tricks with time, warping and even stopping it.
The narrative gets a little too messy near the end, in part because exactly what is needed to put the bomb on the sun and set it off is never clearly explained to the audience (I thought the movie was ending about fifteen minutes before its actual climax), but it’s hard to find an angle with which to look at the movie and see it as anything other than a triumph.