Sunshine (U.K., 2007) * * * 1/2
D: Danny Boyle
At an unspecified point in the far, far future (an endpoint, possibly), the Sun is dying, now just a dim blur in the sky, and Earth--where mankind is still stranded--is trapped in perpetual winter. In an attempt to reignite the star, Earth sends out the Icarus, a giant nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan and protected by a vast, disc-shaped shield, but somehow it's failed in an attempt to deliver its payload straight into the heart of the Sun. Now the Icarus II, built by depleting the scant remains of Earth's resources, is sent on the same mission, manned by eight scientists fully aware that they may have to sacrifice themselves to save mankind.
It's Sunshine, the latest from Danny Boyle, the stylish director of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later. Boyle can be maddeningly inconsistent (as with A Life Less Ordinary), but on the other hand, if mankind were about to become instinct and we could only send a handful of artists into a capsule to help populate a distant planet, Boyle would be one whose DNA I'd choose to preserve. Even his unsuccessful films are dazzling and original; if he fails, he fails spectacularly, and he always takes great risks. Which really suits him to this material, since Sunshine is about a crew willing to risk anything on a mission that's somewhat insensible, on the slim chance their results will be spectacular. This is Boyle's first science fiction film, and reminiscent of the two SF films by that other great British export, Ridley Scott. It's hard SF, more Isaac Asimov than Philip K. Dick, meaning that the emphasis is on realism. Screenwriter Alex Garland (who also wrote Boyle's 28 Days Later) understands that survival in space depends a great deal on complex mathematical calculations (all of which must be accurate), a vast network of machinery and protective material (none of which must fail), and dollops of luck. The fascination of Sunshine is watching everything slowly fall apart for our poor astronauts. First a tough decision is made, which everyone will ultimately regret: to rendezvous with the Icarus I, whose distress signal they intercept. Then there's a mathematical miscalculation: in figuring how to alter the ship's trajectory to intersect with another object in space, the crew's navigation officer forgets to account for the ship's shield, and thus exposes part of the Icarus II to the blazing sun. And that section contains their air supply and the Oxygen Garden, the greenhouse upon which they depend almost as much as the shield. Now short on air and badly wounded, their only hope is to salvage something from Icarus I to help them complete their mission. Either that, or they must sacrifice members of their own crew to extend their oxygen supply. The chain of events continues, relentlessly, with as much tension as Boyle and Garland delivered in 28 Days Later. Ultimately (and a little disappointingly), the film becomes a horror film, as the crew is stalked by a killer intent on sabotaging the mission. But even then, Sunshine resolutely demonstrates how both the Icarus II and its mission operate, piece by piece, and it's mesmerizing in its details. The last hard SF film of this variety was Peter Hyams' 2010 (1984), although it owes even more to the Stanley Kubrick original and, of course, Alien (1979). The crew even communicates to a ship's computer with a female voice, like HAL in the former or "Mother" in the latter. (The computer is always soothing and comforting, even when making drastic decisions which jeopardize lives.)
Although an emphasis is placed on the science, this isn't to say that the film is devoid of philosophical undertones. In fact, the whole premise of the film forms the spiritual undercurrent, which then, brilliantly, extends to the execution of almost every scene. All of mankind is dependent on something he had taken for granted: the light of a star. To repair it, one has to be prepared for self-sacrifice. The plot's mechanics, which deal with painful decisions followed by deliberately transcendent scenes of sacrifice, echo this idea of the greater depending upon the seemingly trivial. Every scientist aboard the Icarus II understands that sometimes you have to sacrifice the arm to save the body. In one of the most refreshing scenes in the film, one crew member suggests they take a vote, while another disagrees: "We're scientists." They should, instead, let the most qualified make the decision. A democracy doesn't necessarily make the best decision, just the most popular one.
Moments like this are what I value so much in Sunshine. Mace (Chris Evans), the ship's engineer, is the most unlikeable character at the outset of the film, brawling with the team's physicist, Capa (Cillian Murphy), and passionately arguing against a rescue mission to the Icarus I. But by the end of the film you've come along to his way of thinking, and you're enthralled and impressed as he risks his own life and endures agonizing pain to salvage the mission. Capa, the surrogate for the audience, operates in a murkier moral realm, and makes decisions more slowly. Still, the crew understands that he's the most important member of the team, since he's the one trained to deliver the nuclear payload into the Sun; appropriately, they would do anything to keep him alive. By the time one character finally breaks down and behaves irrationally and selfishly, the audience has taken the cold, rational side of the scientists: they know that character must die, because he's no longer useful to the mission.
It's all about preserving sunshine, and there's some amazing photographic effects in the film, many of which appear to have been achieved in-camera (like last year's The Fountain). As a result, there isn't a single effects shot in this film that isn't completely convincing. The cinematography, by Alwin Kuchler (Ratcatcher), is breathtakingly beautiful, even when it shouldn't be: the Sun, after all, is dazzling, but it's also deadly, and Boyle treats each death in the film with a reverence bordering on the spiritual. We watch people die carefully, with an eye to the details, and there's always a bit of awe to the process. One of the most spectacular photographic effects is the observation room, where the crew is able to look directly at the sun through tinted glass--a tinting two key characters inevitably dials down, to great risk and some nasty sunburn. This is a film that isn't afraid to gaze directly at the Sun.