Alex Bailey/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Danny Boyle/United Kingdom 2007

Sunshine is the latest entry in the science-fiction subgenre that could be labeled as “space mission” movies – the type of film popularized by Ridley Scott’s classic Alien. The influence of Scott’s film is evident throughout Sunshine, from small details like the claustrophobic corridors of the spaceships to the general setup of the story. Sunshine also combines the disaster movie – like saving-the-world missions of Armageddon and Red Planet – with the deep-space-rescue-goes-wrong scenarios of Supernova and Mission to Mars. In addition, there’s the familiar set-up of a diverse crew going on a scientific mission that goes disastrously wrong, resulting in a mixture of horror and science fiction that, like the voyages in Lifeforce and Event Horizon, is underpinned by philosophical and spiritual elements.

Set in the near future, Sunshine concerns the Icarus II, a spaceship that’s on journey towards the sun. The ship is carrying an explosive payload that will be fired into the sun and which will, in theory, re-ignite it, saving the earth from a global winter. But on the way to the sun, the crew of the Icarus II find the Icarus I, the ship that was sent on the same mission seven years before. The decision is made to dock with Icarus I and take that ship’s unused payload, which should increase the chances of the mission’s success. However, the crew of the Icarus I encounters numerous problems, which could jeopardize the success of the mission. On the evidence of this synopsis, a reader may think: “so far, so familiar”; but Sunshine feels like a fresh spin on the familiar save-the-world/rescue-goes-wrong science fiction film conventions. Director Danny Boyle and his collaborators have lovingly combined elements from past sci-fi movies while managing to create something that feels fresh. Part of the success has to do with the tone of the film: This is a sombre work, more Solaris (both versions) than Star Wars.

In contrast to films like Armageddon and Event Horizon, which mixed bits and pieces from past science fiction films to ironic effect, Sunshine is generally free of ironic asides and overt references to other sci-fi films. The humor, instead, often stems from the seriousness of the circumstances that the crew find themselves in and the grim truth that faces them – namely, that the closer the crew get to the sun, the source of energy that permits life on earth, the more likely they are to be destroyed. The lingering shots of planets, spaceships and, of course, the sun, convey the wonder of being in space, a realm that – in movies at least – all too often seems to be simply an arresting backdrop to the drama rather than an essential part of it. While Sunshine doesn’t quite capture the graceful sense of weightlessness that was conveyed by the floating and rotating camera moves in Lifeforce and Mission to Mars, it does convey a sense of awe at the vastness of space and the magnificence of the sun. Crew members of the Icarus II are shown gazing at the sun through a filtered observation window, and there’s a constant struggle between attraction and repulsion: the crew are strangely drawn to – and almost hypnotized by – this powerful star, but they are also aware of its awesome destructive power.

While the emotional and psychological effects on the crew are potently realized, the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the mission barely seem to be addressed. However, the film makes up for this by generating almost unbearable suspense and tension and by sketching a set of characters we feel connected to. In fact, this film’s greatest strength lies in the fact that it is one of the few science fiction movies in recent years to make an audience care about the fate of the people involved. As the mission goes on, the odds of the crew surviving shrink, and they have to face up to the fact that while they may be able to complete the mission, there is no guarantee that they will be able to survive it. How the crew cope when staring death in the face is a large part of what makes the film so compelling. Every injury and death is a devastating blow to the crew and not just a cheap shock tactic amid a lot of empty-headed special effects and action, a path that’s taken by all too many blockbusters. It’s been a while since a film in this genre has made the struggle to survive against apparently insurmountable odds seem so gripping.

From top to bottom, every cast member makes a distinct impression: there’s the determined but open-minded Capt. Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada); Searle (Cliff Curtis), the ship’s psychiatrist, who’s oddly captivated by the sun; Michelle Yeoh’s Corazon, a dedicated biologist; Rose Byrne as Cassie, the ship’s compassionate pilot; Chris Evans as the single-minded and pragmatic Mace, as engineer who’s dedicated solely to the mission; and Cillian Murphy’s cool, detached Capa, the ship’s physicist who’s an expert on the payload. Even potentially less sympathetic characters like Harvey (Troy Garity), a selfish communications officer, and Trey (Benedict Wong), a guilt-ridden navigator, are clearly defined characters who elicit our sympathy instead of our scorn. Everyone registers as a distinct person who is an essential member of the ship’s personnel and not just a cipher that delivers exposition or cracks jokes. Instead of a group of perfect scientists and heroic adventurers, these people are flawed professionals who are recognizably human. Their mission to literally save the world gives them an unimaginable sense of responsibility.

As well as nerve jangling sound design used to heighten the mystery and increase the tension, there’s an acute sense of claustrophobia and isolation in Sunshine, conveyed in a combination of penetrating close-ups and vast exterior shots. While the majority of the film creates a gradual sense of foreboding as the mission worsens and the crew ponders their possible fate, the climatic moments are more action-packed and fast-paced and, consequently, feel more conventional. At this point, Sunshine feels more like a slasher movie, opting for the familiar Alien-like, run-around-the-ship-style finale. Nevertheless, space also hasn’t seemed as cold, lonely and uninviting in a film since Alien, or possibly even 2001: A Space Odyssey. While a film like Serenity deftly put the wit and intelligence back into the fast-paced space opera, Sunshine re-energizes the brooding and sombre space-exploration science-fiction film and takes the audience on a stunning and thrilling adventure.

© 2007 Martyn Bamber. All rights reserved.

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