Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Alex Garland
To be nice, we could say that Sunshine "pays homage" to its sci-fi predecessors, most explicitly 2001, and to be cynical we could say that it blatantly rips them off; I suppose it all depends on how much leeway you're willing to offer Danny Boyle. Working with his 28 Days Later scribe Alex Garland, I'd say he has managed to produce a personal work that eschews pure rehashing; it addresses a unique and contemporary socio-political issue, like all great science-fiction, through allegory and the guise of "the future". It apes its genre forefathers, but it transcends mere imitation.
Set fifty years in the future, Cillian Murphy stars as the resident physicist, and therefore most indispensable member, on a panracial crew of astronauts on a multi-year voyage to the fading sun. They're possessed with the imperturbable intent to drop a bomb "the mass of Manhattan island" (oh, Manhattan island) on the dying star with the hopes of reigniting it, thereby solving the solar-system-threatening problem the only way America knows how—by blowing it up. Earth, ironically, is in the midst of a period of global freezing, and this mission of the aptly and hubristically named Icarus II spacecraft is the blue planet's last hope of survival. Of course, an Icarus II implies an Icarus I, a preceding vessel that disappeared past "the contact zone" on its identical mission seven years prior. Cause of failure? Unknown! So as I-2 nears the sun and intercepts a distress call from I-1, the crew makes the knuckleheaded error of deciding to check it out. After all, what could go wrong?
Well, pretty much everything, of course. Bathed in sumptuous orange, shining silver and blinding white, the first two-thirds of Sunshine play out like an Ethics 101 textbook brought to life, as absurd but hefty philosophical conundrums confront the crew as all of their best laid plans go awry: do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? ("[Can] we weigh the life of one against the future of mankind?" as Murphy rhetorically puts it.) Can abstract moral principles survive when confronted with concrete reality? Are such principles tenable when one is faced with their actual execution? And the larger spiritual question: if God wants to destroy the earth, by freezing it to death, do we have the capability, or even the right, to stop Him? Do humans even deserve to survive?
Sunshine's first two-thirds couple its intriguing underlying concerns with gorgeous visuals; Boyle's tributary/heavily-influenced film shares 2001's sense of outerspace lyricism, though I wouldn't say it necessarily matches it, and Star Wars' spaceship fetish, not unduly reveling in Mark Tildesley's sumptuous production design and the visual effects team's rendering of the increasingly imposing sun—soak it up, because it's not everyday that you get to stare directly at the sun for two hours and not go blind. (The gold-lame spacesuits are a nice touch, too, courtesy of costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb.) While, in the future-world of the filmmakers, the sun is on its way out, it's still the sun, meaning that it's still unfathomably hot. (Even if it lost 3/4 of its heat, it would still have a surface, to say nothing of its core, temperature of nearly 2500°F.) So, while the crew's imperative mission is to save the sun, their greatest threat to doing so is the sun itself, its incendiary luminescence that perpetually threatens to burn up the ship.
While at first playing out as a cast-attrition epic (to appropriate a phrase recently coined, marvelously, by Tasha Robinson), Sunshine radically switches gears in its final act, as is typical of a Boyle/Garland production, on presumably nothing more than a whim to become a cast-attrition thriller; the previous tones of smoldering orange are replaced by those of cool blue, and the film decides that it wants to be a monster movie, a slasher film in space (a more respectable version of Jason X), conspicuously borrowing more from Alien than from 2001 now as the remaining crew members are picked off by a creature only seen in blurs, as though to look at him is to stare directly into the sun. (Earlier, when a team is investigating the abandoned Icarus I, a suggestion to split-up is rejected; "yeah," Chris Evans, in a role finally worthy of his talent and charisma, scoffs, "we might get picked-off by aliens." And then, uh, that's pretty much what happens.)
Tonally inconsistent, the disparate portions of the film still inform one another thematically. Sunshine's about an international, multicultural gang of humans collectively mustering the gumption, courage and sacrifice to overcome an environmental catastrophe; nothing can stop them, not their own mistakes (Act II) or the psychotic violence of resolute religionists (Act III). It's an optimistic story, steeped in tragedy, about the ability of mankind to save itself and about the unflappability of man's resolve. In short, it's a global warming allegory with an encouragingly positive message and an optimistic outlook.
In all honesty, there's a lot wrong with Sunshine; there are missteps throughout and poor choices on behalf of its makers. It overreaches, it falters and it gets distracted; but for every scene that doesn't work, there's a sequence steeped in emotional and productional grandeur that's as lovely, on the most basic levels of effectiveness, as filmmaking gets. For the bulk of its running time, Sunshine indulges in genre cliches—for example, it lifts 2001's out-of-doors ship repair sequence outright—but one of the major methods by which it distinguishes itself is by affording nearly every death scene with grandiose emotional heft; each is, surprisingly, moving for a genre that often lacks that level of pathos. Forget even just the genre—it's rare to ever see death scenes with this kind of persuasively affecting majesty. John Murphy & Underworld's score is a big help, too, as are Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans' performances, and all in all Sunshine's strongest moments more than make-up for its dips. In one of the earliest scenes, Cliff Curtis, the ship's psycho psychologist, waxes poetic on basking in the sun. "The light envelops you," he effuses; living up to its title, Sunshine is as enveloping as sunshine.