Written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle, Sunshine is science fiction for grown-ups. While most sci-fi films attempt to dazzle you with exploding star ships, impress you with spectacular space battles and garish costumes, and treat the audience like idiots, Sunshine follows in the rarely observed tradition of treating the viewer as a living, breathing, thinking human being.
It turns the exploration of outer space into the exploration of inner space. It takes its time; it gives the audience time to breath and to think. In that respect it is walking in the hallowed foot steps of other titles such as Solaris, Moon, Silent Running, 2001:A Space Odyssey, and the granddaddy of them all, Alien. Indeed it would be mean-spirited to deny Sunshine its place among such glowing company, because it absolutely does deserve a place.
Sunshine is set a mere 50 years into the future, in 2057. The Sun is dying; its luminosity has decreased, threatening the very survival of Mankind. To save our planet and our species, a team of scientists are sent on a mission in a ship to revive the Sun using an experimental type of ‘bomb’ , a bomb the size of Manhattan Island. From the very start, one is overwhelmed by the sheer scale of this film.
The ship, which is strapped rather precariously to the back of this bomb, is named rather ironically, ICARUS II. The crew’s mission: to succeed where the first ship (ICARUS I) failed, to detonate this device in the heart of our nearest star in the hope that it will re-ignite, and bring it back into life.
It’s quite hard to imagine the magnitude of such a premise, yet this is the scale of ambition Boyle and Garland bring to the film, and they more than deliver, with a budget a fraction of what a typical blockbuster demands (it cost $40 million to make at the most). This is achieved through a combination of a good script, tightly delivered plot, strong characters, and absolutely stunning CGI, without which the film would have been so much harder to make. Unlike most other films where the CGI is so overused it makes the story incoherent and confusing, the CGI in Sunshine is used more wisely, and actually succeeds in aiding the story-telling in a way which simply has to be seen to be believed. Sunshine is so luminous, so dazzling, so extraordinary looking it should come with a bottle of sun lotion and a pair of shades.
Following in the tradition of Alien and other films, Sunshine has just a simple ensemble cast: Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Cliff Curtis (The Fountain), Chris Evans of Fantastic Four fame (Evans has said he thinks Sunshine is his best film, and it’s hard to disagree); Rose Byrne (Damages TV series), Troy Garity (Do Not Disturb), Benedict Wong (Moon), Hiroyuki Sanada (Speed Racer), and Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes). Cillian Murphy outdoes himself again (he’s amazing in every Danny Boyle film he’s ever been in) as the meek and mild lead scientist with rock star appeal, Robert Capa, who apparently was modelled on the real-life rock star and physicist Dr Brian Cox of Manchester University, England; and in fact Dr Cox was a science advisor on the film itself.
Cillian is supported nicely by the rest of the cast, in particular by Chris Evans who plays Mace, the engineer, and who in temperament and personality is the antithesis of Capa, which provides plenty of room for manly competition between the two, much to the amusement of the female cast (this plays nicely against other films of its type which are so often overdosed on testosterone and engine oil). However, like Ripley in Alien, Capa’s impact in the film slowly transforms from being minor to pivotal, in ways Bruce Willis could only dream about.
On the face of it, the premise of Sunshine makes it sound like it’s just another hammy Hollywood picture, filled with the idiocy of a Michael Bay film. Or maybe even a quaint episode of Thunderbirds, or a Miyazaki animé. But it couldn’t be more different. From the very start Sunshine is downbeat, relaxed. Confident, yet unassuming. As a sign of how different Sunshine is from the usual Hollywood fare, when Boyle first proposed the film to Hollywood, they wanted him to change the name of the ship to something like “Spirit of Hope”, something more ‘positive’, presumably so they could sell it to the ever-cheerful Americans who wouldn’t watch it otherwise. To some this exemplified the difference between British and American film-makers.
To his credit, Boyle insisted on the name ICARUS – named after the figure in Greek mythology whose wings of wax melted when he got too close to the Sun – precisely because he wanted to get as far away as he could from the ‘flag waving’, jingoistic work of Michael Bay and others. He wanted the name of the ship to reflect the sheer stupidity of man; the stupefying arrogance of trying to tempt fate and beat such astronomical odds; to cheat death; to defy God, even (a sentiment personified by a character in the film itself). It’s a silly understatement to say Danny Boyle more than succeeded in doing that; Armageddon and Sunshine aren’t even in the same universe.
However, like most Danny Boyle films, at its heart Sunshine still has a deeply optimistic undercurrent, with a genuinely uplifting, perhaps even spiritual dimension, though a lot of people including Danny Boyle himself have said it’s an anti-religious film. Nonetheless, Sunshine’s sheer impact on the viewer is heightened enormously by a truly spine-tingling score by John Murphy who uses a simple chord progression to absolutely stunning effect. The visuals plus the music produce what can only be described as a religious experience, especially when the film is watched on a big cinema screen with a good sound system. Indeed, a couple of scenes in particular have become infamous for reducing people to tears, so moved are they by the music. (The soundtrack has since been used in everything from Olympics TV coverage, to movie trailers. Fans of the film were outraged when it took nearly two years for the soundtrack to be released, due to legal wrangling).
Perhaps this was Boyle’s intention: to provoke a ‘religious’ experience in the viewer by supplanting God with the genuine awe and wonder of Nature, and science itself. If so, he succeeded brilliantly.
If you know Boyle’s work, you’ll appreciate Sunshine for what it is. Even if you don’t, you’ll probably enjoy it. Just don’t dismiss it as another nameless, forgettable, disposable blockbuster (like The Core), because it isn’t. The film suffered from poor distribution; had that not been the case, Sunshine would have had far greater exposure, which is what it so desperately needed. Only DVD sales and satellite TV have saved it from obscurity. For while it has skin-blistering visuals, a breathe-taking score, thrilling plotline and believable characters Sunshine is so much more, and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.