More than the plot, Sunshine concerns itself with the psychological dispositions of the ship’s crew. Boyle spends time recording a couple of the crew member’s virtual infatuation with the sun’s power, coloring them like solar junkies desperate for their next fix. Whether they’re quietly observing the sun at maximum allowable brightness in their shielded observation room or welcoming its death embrace, the sun takes on a godlike dimension for the crew that carries through to an increasingly literal interpretation as they approach it. Their relationship with this god as they leave behind their earthly connections gives the film its weight, even though they’re mostly meditating alone rather than discussing their perceptions together.
Sunshine looks absolutely fantastic, boasting impressive effects and expert staging and camerawork that deceptively make it look like it had an incredibly huge budget. It doesn’t scrimp on the visual splendor in the least, making this a real treat for viewers looking for a believable and vivid space adventure. The only annoying camera trick is a frequently used view from inside the crew’s spaceship helmets, presumably used to capture their emotions in what would otherwise be an impenetrable environment. Aside from that, the literally “stellar” effects really sell the concept of the film and the attention to detail inside and outside the Icarus II make for a compelling vision of future space travel.
The film also boasts a standout soundtrack from composer John Murphy and musicians Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, aka Underworld. A few of the early tracks have a boring new-agey sound, just lingering synth washes with no teeth, but as the mission progresses and the real Underworld takes over the songs develop some gritty texture and rhythm that make for thrilling accompaniment, perfectly matching the dangerous explorations on screen.
Surprisingly, the greatest weakness of the film is its acting. The Icarus II has a suitably multi-culti crew befitting a mission to save all of humanity, but they might as well have been real astronauts based on the acting chops they brought to the table. The most painful performance is by respected veteran Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada in the role of the ship’s captain, delivering a completely wooden and disaffected performance. Almost as bad and even more surprising is Michelle Yeoh, usually completely competent but nearly forgettable here. Their one scene together has the grace and heft of a preliminary table read, a truly horrendous display. Elsewhere, the actors merely get by, even the de facto lead Murphy and Chris Evans, with only Troy Garity generating any kind of momentary spark in his role as the sniveling Communications Officer. Maybe Boyle spent too much time directing zombies, maybe it’s just the nature of space films, but there won’t be any acting awards handed out for this one.