Movies like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine should be on the endangered species list. Their ecosystem is being ravaged by box-office predators with bloated budgets, endless action sequences, and state-of-the-art 3D effects designed to distract audiences from their recycled plots and cardboard characters (I’m looking at you, 2009’s Avatar). I like a good popcorn flick as much as the next guy, but surely science fiction still has room for more than technical prowess and breathtaking imagery. I mean, whatever happened to breathtaking humanity?
That’s what you’ll find in Sunshine, which tells of the crew of the Icarus II: eight scientists and astronauts from the four corners of the world sent into the cold, wide cosmos to reignite our dying sun. Given the nature of their endeavour, you’d think the committee sponsoring the operation would’ve given the ship a more optimistic name, but never mind. As the second team entrusted with this dire task (the first vanished without a trace), our heroes represent humanity’s last hope, and the responsibility weighs heavily on them.
Each deals with the burden in his or her own fashion. For example, Capa (Cillian Murphy), who understands the unpredictable physics at play, has resigned himself to perhaps dying in service of a miracle, while Mace (Chris Evans) has opted to channel his angst through anger, devoting himself whole to the mission and attacking all who’d give any less. Others focus on their specific tasks or obsess over the wonders of space. Only Harvey (Troy Garity) treats the mission with the same self-preserving naiveté we apply to our daily lives, and his all too human response paints him as a fool in comparison to his colleagues’ maddening heroism.
Our heroes face the first of many tortuous dilemmas upon detecting the original Icarus’ distress beacon near Mercury: should they investigate? On the one hand, any diversion from their crucial mission might compromise it. On the other, the experimental nature of their stellar bomb makes a failed outcome a genuine possibility, and “two payloads are better than one.” Captain Kaneda (Horoyuki Sanada) delegates the decision to Capa, who, of course, makes the wrong call, lest we have no story. What Sunshine never makes explicit is that the Captain is passing the buck, caving, to some degree, under the pressure of his impossible charge.
It seems people in the movies save the world every day, but here is a film that acknowledges the depth of such a burden. Sunshine doesn’t pertain to alien monsters or killer robots. It trades in humanity, as filtered through the sort of cold pragmatism that sometimes afflict genuine heroes. Consider Corazon’s (Michelle Yeoh) first thought upon being told there aren’t enough air supplies to complete the mission: “There just isn’t enough oxygen to get all of us there.” The idea of coming back to Earth never crosses her mind just as the cruelty of her implication is acknowledged but never criticized.
Many have complained about the third act, in which a villain is revealed and Sunshine becomes more of a thriller than a classical sci-fi yarn, but the theme of soul-crushing responsibility remains front and center, informing the heroes’ desperation as well as their newfound threat’s motivation. Besides, it leads to a stunning climactic fight in which the very notions of space and time get distorted. I was reminded of the final scene in The Black Hole (1979), except with, you know, narrative drive and Rose Byrne getting kicked around.
Otherwise, give or take a few distracting flash cuts, the visuals prove surprisingly sober for a story set aboard a spaceship. I love the low-key design of the Icarus II, which evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in its realism and Alien (1979) in its claustrophobic grittiness. Even John Murphy’s score feels restricted somehow, oscillating between a few odd notes and grinding cacophony as the tension rises. All these aesthetic elements serve not to wow us but to keep our attention on the true star of the movie: human fortitude. I wish more sci-fi productions were made with this much thought. Until then, I suppose I’ll treasure my copy of Sunshine.