Cillian Murphy in Sunshine. Photo: Alex Bailey. TM and © Twentieth Century Fox and Dune Entertainment LLC.
If Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey met Michael Bay’s 1988 blowout blockbuster Armageddon, it might resemble Sunshine, a new beautifully crafted sci-fi adventure that’s as thought-provoking as it is thrilling. Created by the British filmmaking team of director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland (who made the smart zombie flick 28 Days Later), Sunshine imagines a near future when the sun is dying and a solar winter has enveloped the earth. To save humanity, an international crew aboard the aptly named Icarus II sets out towards the center of the solar system to deliver a nuclear device to re-ignite the sun.
Leading the expedition is the levelheaded Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), but the Icarus II’s secret weapon is astrophysicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), responsible for the ship’s payload—a “stellar bomb” containing the earth’s remaining supply of uranium and dark matter—whose detonation would create “a big bang on a small scale,” as Capa promises, and “a new star born out a dying one.”
It’s a risky mission and one that’s already failed humankind once before; the original Icarus fell short of its destination seven years ago, and the ship and its crew have long since been left for dead. But when the crew hears a distress signal from their predecessors, they make the perilous decision to shift their trajectory and rendezvous with the first Icarus to learn what went awry the first time so they don’t make the same mistake.
It’s also a highly theoretical mission, based on as yet unconfirmed physical theories of supersymmetry. But no matter, Boyle, Garland, and the film’s scientific advisor Dr. Brian Cox—who is currently working on the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator—care less about scientific rigor than scientific metaphor in their film. When confronted with the mission’s possible outcomes, Capa responds like any good experimental physicist to a linear-thinking Kaneda, who wants concrete answers. “It’s not a decision,” he says, “it’s a guess.”
Forgetting plot machinations for a moment, Sunshine excels most at illuminating the mysterious elemental beauties of the universe. Chiefly, of course, the glowing orb of the sun, shown in all its fiery, multi-thousand-degree hydrogen-and-helium glory, hovers over the entire picture like an all-knowing eye, and the crew of the Icarus II gazes back at it with both anticipation and dread. In one suspenseful sequence, Capa and Kaneda race against time to fix a piece of damaged heat shield as the sun’s blistering rays creep slowly over the ship’s horizon, ready to toast any mislaid astronauts in their range.
There are also dazzling action sequences involving earth, wind, fire, and ice, from blazing explosions that engulf the ship’s lush “oxygen garden” to the bursting winds of an open air-lock to the instantaneous freezing of an astronaut let loose in outer space. Go ahead and complain to the filmmakers that human beings don’t actually turn into human ice cubes in space (or, for that matter, that the sun is due to expire in five billion years, not 50), but such strikingly palpable images are what Sunshine is really about: The movie is ultimately a primal experience, and the film’s phantasmagoric climax bears this out.
What begins as an astronomical quest transforms, like 2001, into a metaphysical meditation about man’s place in the universe. While the film’s final act of jittery horrors—a mishmash of slasher pics, Alien movies, and existential conflict—pulls Sunshine in yet another (and largely misguided) narrative direction; it does offer the movie another layer of depth. “Who are we, but ordinary humans, to alter the natural evolution of our solar system, so enormous and ancient that it makes our existence pale in comparison?” the film asks. If Sunshine isn’t scientifically strict, it does ask the burning question that scientists must confront: Is meddling with the secrets of the universe tantamount to challenging God?
Originally published July 20, 2007