Sunshine (United Kingdom, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In recent years, "science fiction" has become synonymous with titles like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica. And, while there's nothing wrong with these movies and TV shows (in fact, they're predominately entertaining), they should be accurately be referred to as "space operas" or "futuristic fantasies." Die-hard science fiction buffs have long bemoaned the absence of real "science" in "science fiction." Then, every once in a long while, along comes something like Sunshine that tries to take a step back toward reality. Among Sunshine's credits is a science consultant, and the filmmakers made every effort to follow his suggestions. The result is that, while Sunshine may not feature space battles and ships zipping around at warp speed, it provides a window into what it might really be like traveling around in the solar system in another half-century.

Sunshine opens fifty years in the future, aboard the Icarus II spaceship, en route to the sun where the job of the crew is to perform solar engineering to keep the star from dying. The Icarus II represents mankind's last hope, and the eight people aboard know it. The mission is the #1 priority for each of them - who lives and who dies, if it comes to that, is secondary. The crew is ethnically and sexually diverse (although they all speak English with American accents). The captain is Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada). His first officer is Harvey (Troy Garity). Capa (Cillian Murphy) is arguably the most important person on board - the engineer in charge of the payload designed to reinvigorate the sun. Others include Cassie (Rose Byrne), Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), Mace (Chris Evans), Searle (Cliff Curtis), and Trey (Benedict Wong).

The first half of the film focuses on the dangers inherent in any kind of space travel - how bulky ships cannot alter course at the spur of a moment and how the solar radiation and heat given off by the sun can fry anything that isn't properly shielded. Once the Icarus II encounters the distress beacon of its failed predecessor, the Icarus I, the crew must make a decision: risk changing course to rendezvous with the old ship (and possibly pick up a second critical payload) or continue on their current path. The captain, under advice from Capa, chooses the former trajectory. He is vehemently opposed by Mace, who sees any deviation as unwarranted, putting Earth's future in peril. As it turns out, Mace is right.

The final 30 minutes of Sunshine are odd, and represent a shift in tone. The film adopts a feel not unlike that of Alien, as a demented religious fanatic stalks the corridors of the ship, plucking off survivors one-by-one and attempting to sabotage the mission. There's no arguing that this portion of the movie is suspenseful, but it doesn't mesh well with the previous hour. In addition, writer Alex Garland is trying to make some kind of statement about God and religion, but the specifics of what he's saying are murky, and director Danny Boyle isn't on the same page. It may be that some people, when they look into the sun, see the face of God.

The first two-thirds of Sunshine offers a gripping adventure yarn in the man-versus-nature category. While technology plays a big part in this struggle, it's essentially about how a crew of eight can overcome one setback after another to keep things on target. There are a few nice character-building scenes, but we don't learn a lot more about the crewmembers than is necessary to keep the story moving forward. Contrary to what some might think regarding a seemingly straightforward tale about a spaceship flying form point A to point B, there's plenty of suspense. One doesn't need a black-hatted villain to generate excitement. As in Apollo 13, the challenges of staying alive and on course are sufficient.

Sunshine has a more ethereal look than the average science fiction movie but, considering the subject matter, it works. With the sun in such close proximity, we're treated to a number of shots when bright white bleaches the screen. Other times, there's darkness. The film is in color, but there's a lot of literal black and white. The special effects, while not on the spectacular scale of something like Transformers, are impressive. This is Boyle's third partnership with Garland, and their second consecutive genre effort (following the horror movie 28 Days Later). Hard-core science fiction fans will likely greet Sunshine with a smile. Others may find this to be an odd motion picture, but there's enough going on that even those who are expecting something flashier should still be engaged.

Sunshine (United Kingdom, 2007)

Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Cinematography: Alwin H. Kuchler
Music: Underworld
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2007-07-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1