Scuttling around in pursuit of our various ephemeral schemes and projects, hopes and dreams, it's easy to forget how utterly and helplessly dependent we are on a giant nuclear reactor eight light-minutes away over which we have exactly zero control. Danny Boyle's sci-fi melodrama Sunshine attempts, in its quietly majestic way, to instill a proper sense of awe, to remind us of how puny we are—not just within the context of an infinite cold universe, but beside one of our closest and most benevolent neighbors. Seated behind a safety filter in the viewing room of the spacecraft Icarus II, watching the sun viciously churn out photons, staff psychiatrist Searle (Cliff Curtis) asks the ship's HAL-esque computer, known simply as Icarus, to reduce the filter so that he might experience, oh, let's say 5 percent of the star’s actual brightness at this distance. Icarus politely informs him that 5 percent would be fatal, but suggests that he could perhaps endure 3.1 percent for a period of 30 seconds. The resulting white-hot glare makes those high beams from the Close Encounters mothership resemble a tiny penlight with a nearly dead battery.
Sunshine's doomsday premise has the sun's own fuel tank running on empty, necessitating an emergency mission to more or less jump-start it by imploding a nuclear bomb deep in its guts. (I assume there's probably at least a smidgen of scientific credence to this idea, but the movie wisely just plonks it out there with a minimum of jargon and asks us to accept it in good faith.) A previous spacecraft, Icarus I, vanished without detonating its payload; Icarus II is mankind's final hope to avoid imminent extinction. Its crew is multinationalistically motley in the grand genre tradition, with a Japanese captain (Hiroyuki Sanada); an Irish physicist (Cillian Murphy); a Chinese gardener (Michelle Yeoh), responsible for oxygen replenishment; an English navigator (Rose Byrne); an American communications officer (Troy Garity); etc. When the last picks up a distress signal from Icarus I, suggesting that somebody onboard might still be alive seven years after its last known transmission, our heroes must decide whether the needs of the many—namely, everyone on Earth -- truly outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.
Since the film's plot, which reaches its dramatic apex when two crew members must don spacesuits and perform harrowing external maintenance on damaged filter panels, has largely been borrowed from other, similar movies (notably Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars), and the actors, Murphy excepted, aren't exactly fireballs of charisma, Boyle leans mighty hard on hushed, foreboding atmosphere. For the most part, that strategy works. Despite a paltry (by Hollywood standards) f/x budget, Sunshine manages to evoke a vivid, dreadful-yet-reverent sense of mankind's cosmic insignificance, transforming an object we usually associate with warmth and happiness (sunny disposition, etc.) into an ominous, lethal adversary. (The freezing vacuum of space likewise earns our respect.) Indeed, Sunshine may be the first sci-fi horror film in which the threat is neither extraterrestrial nor psychological -- just elemental. There's even a wink-nudge gag about the fear of being picked off one by one by carnivorous aliens, which is funny precisely because Sunshine so evidently isn't that kind of movie.
Until, ugh, it suddenly is. Courtesy probably dictates that I refrain from revealing the Big Dumb Plot Twist that abruptly transforms this previously thoughtful and moody picture into a spasmodic, incoherent mess; suffice it to say that it is both extremely big and incredibly dumb, and that it kills the movie stone dead. I’d been warned about the nosedive in advance -- as I am now warning you -- and still my jaw dropped in gobsmacked wonder at this act of self-sabotage. What's especially galling is that the Thing I Shan't Name, which is so laughable on its face that Boyle dares not show us more than 3.1 percent of it in any given shot, lest our convulsions be fatal, effectively forces him to abandon the film's carefully wrought visual scheme. Sedate classicism gives way to rapid-fire, motion-blur pyrotechnics, all designed to ensure that we can't quite tell what we're looking at; some scenes are so clumsily chaotic they make Michael Bay look like Michael Haneke. Earth may survive, but Sunshine goes down in flames.
Cillian Murphy, Cliff Curtis
Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans,
Directed by Danny Boyle