At what point does a sublime experience turn into a traumatic one? A strange philosophical question that no postmodernist intellectual has advanced, as far as I’ve heard. It’s a question that we, as an audience, might ask of Danny Boyle’s new sci-fi thriller, Sunshine, and though (like many of the questions posed by/of the narrative) it’s never answered, it’s probably worth the journey across the threshold.
Boyle is famous for some of his other violent, psychological head-trips. From Trainspotting to 28 Days Later, Boyle seems obsessed with traumatic experiences that tax both our minds and our bodies. Sunshine is the story of such an extreme experience: in the shadow of the dying galaxy, a small crew of a ship called the Icarus II is charged with piloting an apocalyptic bomb into the sun in order to restart its fusion mechanisms.
Boyle flaunts his influences. At times, the film seems like a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially during the first half, when the imagery is dominated by slow, balletic interstellar maneuvers and stunning lights and colors. This half of the film is also when the psychological elements are most developed, and it’s this first half that audiences should remember most fondly. This also may be when Boyle seems most an artist: the visuals are unique, sublime, and engaging, and the film looks like it might develop as a ghostly portrait of a crew, rather than as a horror sci-fi scramble.
After the first hour, there’s a key change in tone and pace, and Sunshine becomes less about psychological balance and nuance and more about tension and claustrophobia. The key scene, where the transition takes place, is the crew’s exploration of another ship, the Icarus I, and this scene is punctuated by one of the most ruthless little cinematic tricks available to the filmmaker (a trick popularized by Tyler Durden in Fight Club). This tense, ghostly stretch is where the film breaks down into certain accepted horror conventions.