Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Mark Strong
Running time: 107 minutes
Creating worthy drama within the framework of the science fiction genre often borders on the oxymoronic. Sunshine firmly douses this notion, foregrounding an involving story and non-sensationalised characters ahead of the stunning special effects.
Following the crew of the Icarus II spaceship on a very special trip in the not too distant future, we know their fate from the start - as do they. For their kamikaze mission involves flying a massive nuclear bomb into the dying sun in order to perk it up and provide the Earth with rays of light once more. Guess what folks? Not everything quite goes to plan...
Danny Boyle's visually and mentally engaging film is the antithesis of your usual Hollywood sci-fi fare - devoid of the glamorisation, exploitation, token romance and clichéd one-liners that pollute those flicks. Instead, we have gritty drama with the odd thrilling twist that takes us out of our comfort zone.
Both the claustrophobic environment and unavoidable death are great potential for conflict and fully explored by Alex Garland's screenplay. Scenes where the group has to make a human sacrifice in order to continue are remarkably involving in and touch upon Twelve Angry Men territory. Set in a simple room, the power of both situation and spoken word have the power to thrill us alongside the dazzling array of special effects.
A prime example of ascending generical conventions can be seen with the way that certain background information is withheld from the viewer - such as details of the selection process for the crew of the suicide mission happened, plus the reaction from people on the Earth to the ongoing events. This challenges us to come up with our own interpretations, rather than the conventional spoon feeding we’re subjected to by mainstream cinema.
A calm and clinical tone on board the ship pervades the early portion of the film, reminiscent of the foreboding opening section of Alien. As events start to spiral out of control, particularly with the discovery of a previous solar mission, the visuals gradually become peppered with distortions and subliminal imagery - presumably meant to mirror the minds of the crew and their mental deterioration. This type of direction is Boyle’s forte, as evidenced by the memorable hallucinogenic scenes in Trainspotting.
As mentioned earlier, story takes firm precedence over the effects - but there’s still a visual feast on offer. The voyages outside the spacecraft to repair the defensive shield are particularly effective alongside glimpses of the flame-composed, roaring sun. In this respect, we share the crew’s perspective of sheer awe, particularly with several shots coming from within the constrictive, claustrophobic astronaut helmets. Another factor of occupying this enclosed spatial environment with a character also helps us to give a damn whether they're then burnt to a crisp or not!
The cast all handle their roles with aplomb, with Cillian Murphy further enhancing his credentials as nightmare-plagued physicist Capa. Danny Boyle wisely opted to use actors rather than 'stars' and this authentic approach is further demonstrated by not tarting the cast up with make-up to look gorgeous and visually appetising. Rose Byrne, so ravishing in other roles, looks grimy and downtrodden here. Do you really think astronauts in the far reaches of space facing impending death care about their lip gloss? Of course not.
Sunshine is one of those movies from which discussion deserves to flow. With the subject matter and a series of gruesome deaths you'd expect the film to be rather nihilistic, yet a ray of optimism is cleverly injected. In one sublime moment, Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) - inspecting the incinerated, ash-laden remains of the botanical garden - finds a tiny green plant growing from out of the ashes. That beautiful, yet fragile moment can be seen as a metaphor of hope for the universe and life itself.
Unfortunately, a mediocre denouement stops Sunshine from being a masterpiece. The film suddenly 'goes a bit Event Horizon' by having a climactic battle between good and evil before offering us a plot resolution when an ambiguous ending would have been more appropriate and ultimately rewarding.
Still, this brief flirtation with mediocrity shouldn't eclipse the brilliance we witnessed before. Sunshine is a fantastically enjoyable film that works our minds, delights our senses and shows that futuristic science fiction can be serious drama rather than mere popcorn fodder.
Read our interview with director Danny Boyle.