The year is 2057. Like its namesake from Greek mythology, a spaceship called the Icarus II is flying too close to the Sun. But the ship’s eight crew members have more in mind than just getting closer to the source of Earth’s power—they plan to detonate a nuclear explosion on its surface. This will re-ignite the dying star and save the Earth from an imminent frozen demise.
Does Al Gore know he’s got it backwards?
The outlandish premise of “Sunshine” may sound like “Armageddon,” but director Danny Boyle’s latest movie has more in common with the abstract imagery and deliberate pace of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” than the silly asteroid-bombing antics of Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck.
Deep space travel in this movie is no quick rocket ship trip. It is a long, tedious affair that allows one plenty of time for both philosophical contemplation and childish fights. Considering the fate of the planet lies in the hands of one small crew, it would be better for them to avoid wrestling with each other or with distracting small-scale moral quandaries and keep their eyes on the prize. Then again, they are human beings.
On-board physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy, whose breakthrough role was in Boyle’s “28 Days Later”) and engineer Mace (Chris Evans) begin the film at odds and will grow even further apart when commander Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) charges Capa with a mission-defining decision. They can continue their present course with resources already dwindling, or make a temporary diversion to find out what happened to the ill-fated Icarus I mission eight years earlier. Guess which one he chooses?
Boyle’s art direction is visually arresting both inside and outside the ship, from the lush green jungle of the crew’s artificial garden to the glowing reflective panels on the ship’s giant eyeball-curved shield. This is what protects their ship from the Sun’s blazing heat, and when it malfunctions, a dangerous spacewalk ensues. Two astronauts must venture outside in bright gold spacesuits, and Boyle places a camera inside the roomy helmets so we can see the astronauts’ perspective and witness the terror on their faces in the same shot.
A potent mix of new and old cinematic tricks keeps the atmosphere alternating somewhere between disorienting and claustrophobic. Boyle gets abstract, as random frames (of the Icarus I crew?) are inserted for only a second at a time. The images are like ghosts, haunting the crew as they inch closer towards finding out what happened to them. Impressive computer-generated effects represent the sun’s breathtaking beauty, driving more than one crewmember to obsession.
Screenwriter Alex Garland embraces the big themes in “Sunshine.” The Sun represents both death and God, and it illuminates the crew’s distinctly human qualities as the ship gets more near. Is saving humanity by imposing our will upon nature too much like playing God? Since it is a human error that eventually throws the entire mission into jeopardy, does that reflect on its legitimacy in the first place?
These are interesting questions to ponder, but as the film reaches its final act, Boyle shies away from Kubrick’s epic and enters “Alien” territory. There is so much foreshadowing that the ending seems an almost foregone conclusion, and when the mood shifts from introspective and spooky to straight horror, it’s a little jarring. Previously, some gruesome details like faces and limbs cracking in freezing space had hinted at things to come, but there are a lot of unanswered questions as to why the final face-off happens at all.
That’s not to say that, again, the visual element and unique sound design are not impressive. They are— especially such unsettling contrapuntal noises like the sound of metal being ripped apart or eerily threatening radio interference. A scarred villain who appears mostly out of focus and seems to vibrate just beyond the film’s frame also helps to ensure a psychotic feel right up until the end.
“Sunshine” does not achieve the unity of theme or abstract totality of “2001″ (which remains the gold standard for the genre), but it does effectively grapple with provocative questions of morality and spirituality. The tidy ending satisfies the traditional audience desire for closure, while everything that came before it still suggests that some questions may go unanswered forever.