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Sci-Fi Film Shines

Directed by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, The Beach, Trainspotting) and written by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, The Tesseract, The Beach), Sunshine, a futuristic sci-fi film, is as good as genre filmmaking gets and as good as fans of Boyle’s previous work have come to expect from a director who’s proven adept in working in multiple genres.

In 2057, the sun is dying and the earth with it. Icarus II, a spacecraft with an international crew, carries a “stellar bomb” the size of Manhattan. Detonated properly, the bomb will reignite the sun, in effect creating a sun within the sun; seven years ago, another ship, the Icarus I, failed to deliver a similar payload. The international crew includes Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), the captain, Cassie (Rose Byrne), an astronaut and pilot, Harvey (Troy Garity), the communications specialist and second-in-command, Searle (Cliff Curtis), the psychologist, Trey (Benedict Wong), the navigator, Mace (Chris Evans), the engineer, Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), the biologist, and Capa (Cillian Murphy), a physicist who helped design the stellar bomb and is presumably best suited to respond to unexpected contingencies, if and when they arise. They do, of course.

After sixteen months in deep space, Searle has become obsessed with sitting in the sunroom where they can sit and stare at the sun with minimal protection. Corazon obsesses over the life-giving oxygen gardens. Mace has become emotionally volatile. However, after the Icarus II enters the communications-free “dead zone”, they encounter the Icarus I’s distress beacon. The crew must then decide whether to continue on course or rendezvous with the Icarus I and hopefully add its stellar bomb to their ship's payload. From that one decision, a series of calamities strike the Icarus II, ultimately endangering the mission to save the earth and with it, humanity.

For inspiration, Boyle and Garland drew from films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Alien, and Deep Impact. That list alone might make Sunshine sound derivative and unoriginal. On a superficial level it is, but Boyle and Garland weren’t interested in making an art film or cinematic essay along the lines of a Kubrick or a Tarkovsky. Boyle and Garland instead set out to make a action/thriller that owes as much to the disaster genre as it does to ideas-driven sci-fi.

Within these parameters, they fill Sunshine with suspense-filled action sequences that closely hew to the disaster-in-space sub-genre (e.g., a lost ship, a mysterious signal, decompression, an emergency spacewalk, equipment malfunctions, etc.), which they deliver in ample amounts, all while exploring the psychological and emotional effects of deep space travel and offering up some modest ruminations on religion.

As good as Sunshine is -- and it is, thanks to Boyle’s crisp, tight direction, Garland’s spare, action-driven script, and visuals on par with the work churned out by the better Hollywood effects studios – the film suffers from two missteps: one minor and another potentially major. There is limited character development and, more importantly, a third act plot turn that can’t help but feel like Boyle and Garland have run out of ideas (they probably did).

By then, though, Boyle, Garland, the cast, and their collaborators have built up so much good will that we can forgive Sunshine’s inelegant lurch into genre clichés. Despite these missteps, though, Sunshine recovers just long enough to give moviegoers an ending that settles on the exact moment where self-sacrifice meets transcendence in a burst of real and metaphorical illumination and a poignant moment back on a snow-covered Earth.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars