Director : Danny Boyle
Screenplay : Alex Garland
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Cillian Murphy (Capa), Michelle Yeoh (Corazon), Hiroyuki Sanada (Kaneda), Rose Byrne (Cassie), Benedict Wong (Trey), Chris Evans (Mace), Troy Garity (Harvey), Mark Strong (Pinbacker), Cliff Curtis (Searle), Chipo Chung (Voice of Icarus)
The title of Sunshine, a sci-fi thriller that marks the third collaboration of director Danny Boyle, writer Alex Garland, and producer Andrew Macdonald, is wonderfully misleading. The word “sunshine” suggests warmth, happiness, and comfort, but throughout the film it is intense, all-consuming, and potentially deadly. I cannot think of a film in which light itself, the very source of cinema, was such an inordinate force, often filling the screen and drowning out everything else. Yet, at the same time, the crux of the story is the necessity of that all-powerful light, which allows for human existence when it is abundant in just the right amounts. That which provides life can also incinerate it.
The story takes place some 50 years in the future when the sun has begun to die, which means that life on Earth will soon be extinguished by a solar winter. A spaceship named the Icarus II, which is protected by a giant reflective shield that looks like an enormous inverted umbrella, is traveling toward the sun with a payload of nuclear weapons that, when dropped into the dying star, will jump-start it back to life. That's the idea, anyway, which is borne out of a combination of complicated physics and simple hope. An earlier mission, launched seven years ago with the same goal, disappeared somewhere around Mercury and has not been heard from since.
On board the Icarus II is a multinational crew led by captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada). Among the crew is Capa (Cillian Murphy), the soft-spoken physicist who designed the payload; Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), the botanist who is responsible for maintaining a lush onboard garden that supplies them with oxygen for the years-long mission; Trey (Benedict Wong), a scientist who makes a fateful error from which he never recovers; Harvey (Troy Garity), a psychologist who is unnervingly intrigued by the effect the sun has on the human psyche the closer one gets to it; Mace (Chris Evan), the hotheaded communications offers; and Cassie (Rose Byrne), the sweet-natured navigator. The ship is overseen by Icarus, an artificial-intelligence computer (voiced by Chip Chung) whose mission-oriented programming sometimes conflicts with the crew's all-too-human decisions.
The mission runs into complications when they receive transmissions that appear to be coming from the previous expedition. Having been gone seven years, it is doubtful they could have all survived; however, a few of them may have, and the crew of the Icarus II most decide whether or not to go off-course and investigate or maintain their present heading. There are pros and cons of both choices, and one of the film's most satisfying elements is the way the characters work through their dilemmas rationally, taking into account the needs of the many (say, the entire population of Earth) with the needs of the precious few. When, the film asks, does a single human life become expendable?
Although it was shot on a budget that probably wouldn't have paid for the catering table on the Transformers set, Boyle turns Sunshine into a visually striking film that uses the expected elements of the science fiction genre to create memorable, sometimes mesmerizing images. The early portions of the film are lyrical and often quiet, absorbed as they are in the vastness of space and the power of the universe. There have been so many movies set in outer space, but so few of them really capture what it would be like to be immersed in that endless black vacuum. Sunshine does so with great conviction.
The omnipresence of the sun, both visually and thematically, is the film's foundation, and light is manipulated every way imaginable. The crew of the Icarus II can see the sun safely from behind a protective filter that allows them to see only a fraction of the star's power, which provides an effective visual metaphor for the inherently miniscule place of human life in the cosmos. Yet, it is precisely human life that is at stake, and not just the main characters. Although we don't see Earth itself until the film's final frames, the continued existence of humankind is what truly hangs in the balance, which makes every action one of dire importance.
It is unfortunate, then, that the film starts coming apart at the seams in the final third as it sinks into horror-thriller territory. The lyricism of the film's early scenes give way to frantic violence, bleary visuals, and jagged editing, which is appropriate given the story's turn of events, but is not enthralling enough to disguise its derivative nature. This third-act development does have thematic significance in that it raises the question about humankind's role in the universe and whether a mission as audacious as jump-starting the sun qualifies as “playing God.” Unfortunately, it is done with such blunt-force trauma that it feels more like a bone thrown to the action-movie crowd than an organic and meaningful extension of the film's underlying issues.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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