Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) is something utterly unique in the movie business — a director who makes horror movies without ever intending to; a director who skirts the line of “the Hollywood ending” without ever crossing it; a director who creates fables of relentless despair and then, when all seems completely lost, inevitably infuses a flicker of hope.
The year is 2057 and our sun is dying billions of years before scientists predicted it would. The Earth is blanketed in a perpetual winter and unless something is done, everything on Earth will freeze to death in the matter of a generation. Humankind launches the fatefully named Icarus II, a long-range spacecraft whose immense bulk is made up of a massive thermonuclear bomb to jumpstart the sun’s core, and a colossal, spherical shield to reflect the sun’s rays and keep the tiny habitat core and its eight member crew on the dark side of the sun’s devastating radiance and heat.
Nearing the end of their voyage and out of radio contact with Earth, the crew receives a distress signal from Icarus I, their sister ship which disappeared on the same mission seven years earlier. A decision, deeply unpopular with some, is made to change course in order to retrieve the other bomb (there is no chance that the crew survived), just in case a second try is necessary. But in doing so, a minor miscalculation leads to a major calamity and soon the entire mission is in jeopardy. The crew members fight not only for the fate of mankind, but for their very lives as they battle equipment, sabotage, an alien presence and each other. What begins as a sci fi action film morphs into a survival adventure story and finally reveals itself as a monster film of sorts.
The plot of Sunshine would seem utterly ridiculous (I was reminded of one of the most ludicrous lines of film dialogue ever written from Highlander II in which one scientist mutters to another, “They will forever remember this as the day we saved the earth from the sun.”) were it not for the fact that Danny Boyle rests comfortably at the helm. Sunshine is not a space opera like Star Wars. It belongs to that select group of science fiction films that care more about the science than the fiction. One cannot watch Sunshine and not be reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork 2001, Peter Hyams’ 2010, Tarkovsky’s Solaris and even Ridley Scott’s Alien.
Icarus II is a world of Das Boot claustrophobia with labyrinthine submarine-like corridors. The cramped, confined passageways (which contrast jarringly with the star encrusted expanse of space outside) are amplified by cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler's exquisite camerawork — uncomfortably tight close ups and a dazzling use of light. This is a film in which characters are enveloped by light, bathe in it, look upon it almost like primordial man when he first encountered fire. One character is so hypnotized by the luminous orb of the Sun that he stares at it for hours on end until his skin begins to burn away. The stunningly realized production design, with its functional quarters and spacesuits shaped like Mayan idol-gods, is matched only by the equally stunning and innovative special effects — while no one will actually believe a trip into the sun is possible, the vessel is so well conceived and executed that we come very close.
Sunshine is not a slow film, though it is methodically paced with well-timed dramatic beats. If the first half of the film feels like the set up of a nerve-wracking space adventure, the second half feels like a sequence of loosely connected set-pieces. Still, the tension never abates even in the final act of the film, where the internal threats do not give way to external threats so much as they become personified in order that they may gain motion and animation. If there are any complaints to be had with Sunshine, they will surface here, where a tonal shift throws the film’s dramatic inertia off kilter.
Sunshine forces audiences to recognize just how puny the individual is in contrast to the eternal vastness of space and God. It asks us to examine our place in the universe, decide how far we should go to change the natural course of human evolution, and if we willing to pay the cost required. It forces us to ponder our enslavement to technology and scientific rationale; to ask if any human being is ever expendable; to scrutinize what happens when man looks into the face of God and finds only madness; to come face to face with humanity’s propensity to de-evolve in the face of hopeless futility; and to wrestle with whether humanity is intrinsically good or evil. Sunshine is less about a space voyage and more about a psychological voyage. Here, space is not dark and cold, but bright and scorching — that which we need to survive will just as soon destroy us.
Boyle makes beautiful, transcendent films about horrific subjects. Yet, there’s always a sliver of hope amidst a sea of darkness. No matter how wretched the situation, there is always beauty and an intense spiritual quality. You can’t comprehend light, Boyle argues here, until you first perceive the darkness. If self-sacrifice for those whom we love or better yet, have never even met, is truly what it means to be human, then the film is worthy of the literal seed of hope we are given in the end.
Sunshine is a visually arresting film from a director with a purity of vision unlike almost anyone else working in film today. Spooky and sensual, Sunshine is both similar and different than anything else in Boyle’s pantheon. It is almost as if, with each new film, Boyle takes an established genre and, by adding his moody direction and enigmatic soundtrack, makes it his own. Sunshine is not a science fiction film for science fiction’s sake but merely because it alone contains the canvas large enough to tell a spiritual and philosophically story of these dimensions. It is a vision both awe-inspiring and terrifying.