WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: The Sun is dying, and the Earth’s last, best hope lies with the eight-strong crew of the Icarus II. As the crew fly ever closer to the Sun in order to deploy their massive bomb, they come face to face with their own demons and the consequences of their mistakes; not only that, but they also stumble across the crew of the first Icarus, presumed lost many months before.
British director Danny Boyle is undoubtedly a man of great range, talent and vision. The evidence has stacked up all the way from Trainspotting to 28 Days Later to his Oscar-Laden Slumdog Millionaire and the critically acclaimed 127 Hours. But – and he’s by no means alone in this – he has sometimes failed to find audiences for his movies, for example A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach or Millions. While this bold Science Fiction effort has its fans, it has to go down as a chin-scratcher, rather than a blockbuster.
It’s 2057 and the future of humanity is threatened by a dying Sun. Seven years previously, the crew of the Icarus embarked on the long voyage to re-ignite the heart of the star with a ‘stellar bomb;’ but the ship disappeared without trace, and now the Icarus II is sixteen months into its own voyage, about to lose communication with a planet that depends utterly on the mission’s success.
The crew are protected by a super-intelligent computer also called Icarus, but even though Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) keeps a cool head, they are not a completely harmonious bunch: spiritualist Searle (Cliff Curtis) is fascinated by the Sun’s rays; Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) loves her garden room, supplying vital oxygen for the mission; Cassie (Rose Byrne) feels everyone’s pain; Harvey (Troy Garity) struggles to assert his authority; and Trey (Benedict Wong) is just terrified of doing the wrong thing. Then there’s impulsive Mace and Zen-like Capa (Chris Evans and Cillian Murphy), fire and ice in their approach to the mission.
As the ship approaches Mercury, the crew are astounded to hear the distress call of the first Icarus, giving them a painful decision – do they ignore it, or do they try to reach their sister ship? Mace is all for carrying on regardless, but Capa insists that a second bomb would give a much better chance of success, so they change course. However, the decision almost immediately has terrible consequences, and with the destruction of Corazon’s oxygen-supplying plants, there are more agonising moral decisions to make. What’s more, though the Icarus seems as deserted as the Marie Celeste, not all of the crew have withered away in the face of the Sun’s extraordinary power.
Sunshine is perfectly aware that it’s following in the footsteps of some awfully big space boots, yet – to give it its due – gives it a go anyway. Taking the atmospheric isolation of Alien and marrying it with the balletic, philosophical, epic quality of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine also has a touch of the sacrificial themes of doomed-planet movies Deep Impact and Armageddon (I don’t mention Solaris, Event Horizon or Silent Runnings because I haven’t seen them yet).
Topped off with some astounding, glowing visuals reminiscent of The Fountain, it all makes for a heady mixture; but regrettably, the brew is more disorientating than intoxicating. Sunshine begins as a claustrophobic film about the loneliness and despair of a hopeless mission in deep space, develops into a trippy mood piece much influenced by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark (Icarus is a few generations down the road from HAL, and shares the same authoritarian attitude), then concludes with a disappointing and disjointed finale as a monster is unleashed and begins to menace (what’s left of) the crew.
Had Boyle and writer Alex Garland stuck to making one kind of movie or the other, the result would have been derivative but consistent; as it is, the viewer is pulled in several directions at once, rarely a comfortable or rewarding experience. Any tension that the film’s troubling maths creates – there’s enough oxygen for four, and five on board – is utterly swept away by the frantic climax, during which it’s often hard to tell what’s going on.
The film’s not helped by the fact that – in true 2001 fashion – the crew are a boring, anonymous bunch, except for Capa and Mace. Capa is intriguing, largely because of Cillian Murphy’s innate other-worldliness, his calmness thrown into sharp relief by Chris Evans’ Mace, a right-thinking hothead who is the latest in a series of Chris Evans hotheads. Sunshine hardly gives us anyone to latch on to, and the film flounders, unable to summon 2001‘s sense of significance, becoming lost in a wave of hip but confused sights and sounds. It seems absurd to contrast the characters with Michael Bay’s one-dimensional stereotypes, but at least Harry Stamper et al had spark and gusto, a smidgen of humour.
Also, the more pedantic viewer is entitled to ask pertinent questions of the film, not least ‘What’s up [ha ha] with the gravity?’ If you care to read up on the film, you’ll learn that the actors did an enormous amount of preparation, including experiencing weightlessness. God knows why, when as soon as they step inside the ship, the astronauts might as well be walking around their own front rooms.
Film students will get plenty out of Sunshine. There‘s a good game of Spot the Influence to be played, and amongst the borrowed ideas Boyle does come up with some truly arresting visuals, backed up by a groovy soundtrack. However, none of this is enough to sustain interest in a film that starts brightly and always looks and sounds the part, but never convinces that it knows what story it’s telling. Sorry, Sunshine, but you’re not for me.