“Directors only go into space once”, said Danny Boyle in the run-up to the release of his contribution to the sci-fi oeuvre. Sunshine is a bold attempt at leaving his mark on the genre, though its flaws perhaps reduce its chances of joining the canon of the truly great space flicks.
The Sun is dying, and a team of astronauts have been sent on a mission to fire a nuclear device into it, which it is hoped will lead to its reignition. We find out that the mission, somewhat morbidly codenamed Icarus 2, is the second such attempt, the first mission having dropped out of contact with Earth several years before. This second attempt will, however, be the last possible chance for saving life on Earth. Things, of course, don’t go according to plan, particularly after the distress beacon of Icarus 1 is detected, an eerie echo of the similar scenario in Alien.
This could easily have been a schlocky sci-fi thriller, but the film’s strength is that, like Tarkovsky’s majestic Solyaris, the plot is used as a device for making the viewer aware of various spiritual and existential questions. There is very little characterisation of the crew – we do not learn about their personalities or lives on Earth – but we get to know them through the decisions, both moral and professional, that they are forced to face. We are immediately placed on board the ship with them, allowing us to feel their sense of detatchment from Earth. However, this also has the effect of distancing us from the magnitude of the importance of their task; the weight of the saving of humankind is rarely felt particularly strongly, which at times renders the characters’ actions questionable. Visually, the film is particularly impressive, with thoughtful set-design creating a very believable Icarus spacecraft. Some critics appear to have questioned the science behind it all, but this is a bit of a red herring, I found myself fully prepared to go along with it.
Intertextually, there are numerous respectful nods to the classics of the genre, namely Alien, Solyaris, 2001, and Dark Star, all done delicately rather than in a Tarantino-like manner (when will he “go into space”, i wonder?) However, its spiritual brother is Paul W.S. Anderson’s underrated Event Horizon, an effectively tense space horror film mauled by the critics who were expecting a subtle sci-fi thriller. Sunshine’s final act in particular seems to resemble Anderson’s film, and it is here that the biggest problem with the film lies: what starts off as a well paced, neatly constructed, patient film, ends up unwisely sliding off into predictable horror about two-thirds in. This unsatistfactory denouement seems in parallel with Boyle’s previous 28 Days Later, which also lost its way at a similar stage after a spectacular beginning. That film’s sequel, 28 Weeks Later, (albeit by a different director and screenwriter) also limped to a close somewhat. Does this mean that Boyle and Alex Garland have a problem finishing films off satisfactorily?
Performances are uniformly good, particularly Cillian Murphy who always appears to breeze through films as if acting was the easiest thing in the world to do (c.f. the likes of Orlando Bloom who make it look amazingly hard). Also nice to see the likes of Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh and Rose Byrne involved in a British production, showing that Boyle is still a good draw for international talent. Overall, Sunshine is, for the most part, an intelligent, well paced and thought-provoking work, let down only by a rather flimsy third act.