Written by Caballero Oscuro
Sunshine came and went without much of an impact at the box office last year, which is really a shame because it’s a standout effort that deserves to find an audience. Boasting direction by always-watchable Danny Boyle and a script from his 28 Days Later collaborator Alex Garland, the film belongs to the school of brainy space sci-fi classics like 2001 and Solaris. That’s not to say it’s a really smart film, in fact it has its share of groan-inducing dialogue as well as a healthy amount of brawny action, but it’s more concerned with the cerebral rather than the physical journey of its crew. As such, it’s an extremely refreshing take on a tired genre and a fine reminder of how good sci fi can be in the right hands.
The crew of the good ship Icarus II is tasked with a mission to save humanity, hurtling through space on a mission to deliver an explosive payload that will reignite the dying sun, or more specifically to generate a new sun from the embers of the old one. Earth has entered a virtual ice age due to the sun’s diminishing strength, and the crew represents Earth’s last hope to save humanity. They’re not planning on a one-way trip though, as the Icarus II is a state-of-the-art solar-shielded vessel designed to allow them to get in, deliver their cargo, and return home with barely a tan. The bummer is that they’re cut off from radio contact with home after entering a communications blackout zone near the sun, which of course conveniently leaves them to their own devices with no hope of outside counsel.
When they encounter a distress signal from their predecessors on Icarus I, a mission presumed failed over five years prior, they’re faced with making their own decision about whether to alter their course to check for unlikely survivors and a second functioning bomb, or continue on with just their sole shot at success. Their genius captain decides to place the choice on the shoulders of their physicist, Capa (Cillian Murphy), a still-naïve lad barely competent to make the decision, let alone weather any resulting fallout from the choice. Capa’s choice isn’t really a surprise, and it’s no shock that things don’t exactly go as planned for the duration of the mission, but the film takes a questionable turn near its end to set up a thrill-packed final act.
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.
The DVD is packed with bonus features, starting with two separate commentary tracks: one by Boyle, and one by the film’s science advisor, an actual professor, presumably to play up the film’s attention to scientific detail. Deleted scenes and an alternate ending are available, as well as extensive web production diaries. Also commendable is Boyle’s inclusion of a couple of shorts completely unrelated to the film, just items he enjoyed and wanted to support by devoting a bit of his DVD’s space to them. One of the shorts, “Dad’s Dead,” is visually impressive, while the other, “Mole Hills,” is at best an interesting experiment.