Sunshine takes a movie premise that has been done to death and does it so well that it almost feels like this idea has never been tried before. There’s a whole subgenre of movies where an intrepid crack team of scientists / adventurers / total lunatics embark on a mission to save the world by going all the way the heck out into the unknown, and most of them are pretty terrible: Armageddon and The Core come most recently to mind. Sunshine stands out by being a) not terrible by a long shot, b) grounded in as much physical reality as most Hollywood pictures can stand to get away with, and c) using the adventure premise of the story as a lead-in to something bigger and deeper.
The premise: The sun is dying (why? Eh, don’t ask), and a space mission has been sent out to reignite it with a special bomb. A previous mission was lost without a trace several years ago, which makes this attempt—codenamed “Icarus II”—all the more urgent. So far everything has been going according to schedule, but not long after Icarus II passes the point where it can no longer communicate with Earth, the crew picks up a strange signal—Icarus I’s distress beacon. They’re tempted to investigate, but Captain Kaneda (none other than Hiroyuki Sanada) says no: “Nothing, literally nothing, is more important than this mission.” Shotgun foreshadowing, to be sure, but only in retrospect.
Then comes the first disaster. Nagivator Trey (Benedict Wong) miscalculates the repositioning of the ship’s all-important deflector shield, which keeps them from burning up on the way to the sun. Kaneda goes EVA to fix the damage along with the bomb’s chief engineer, Capa (hollow-eyed Cillian Murphy, from director Danny Boyle’s earlier 28 Days Later). The scene that follows from this hammers home, far better than almost any other movie I’ve seen, the sheer scale of things in space. It also demonstrates the level of real danger faced by the Icarus crew: if they so much as put a toe outside of the shadow of the deflector, they will be instantly incinerated. If the movie doesn’t work on any other level for you, it will most definitely work on the level of sheer physical gut-wrenching spindizzy.
There are more problems. Even with all the additional data they’ve gathered at their distance, Capa isn’t confident one bomb will do the trick. Worse, the last disaster incinerated the Icarus II’s oxygen garden under the care of Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), who takes the death of her plants as personally as, well, a mother takes the death of her child. They have no choice but to link up with Icarus I and find out what happened. They find a lot—and in the process, the movie introduces its true theme, that of the largely unanswerable question of whether or not humanity deserves to be sticking its neck out in a universe this cosmically indifferent to life.
It’s hard to talk about Sunshine without comparing it to other films—not just bad ones, but many good-to-excellent ones that are mined for inspiration without being ripped off. The dynamics of the crew also hearken back to The Abyss (a favorite of mine) and another film of extreme environments that Boyle was explicitly influenced by: Das Boot. I also couldn’t help but think of the intriguing SF / horror misfire Event Horizon; Sunshine’s latter half is like what that movie tried to be but couldn’t pull off without tripping over its own metaphysical feet.
Many people have drawn the inevitable comparisons to 2001, a movie the still feels like the most realistic portrayal of space travel yet put on film, Pan Am logos notwithstanding. There’s more than a little of that movie in spirit here, as in a sequence where three of the crew have to blow themselves out of one airlock and into another and risk freezing to death. (We’ve thankfully gone far enough with movie physics to understand that people do not simply pop in a vacuum, like a Ziploc bag full of meat thrown under a car tire.) Sunshine also evokes the same sense of enormous distances and the overwhelming scale of things, especially in the final moments when the bomb is finally on its way to the target—albeit with some unexpected additional payload.
The movie isn’t perfect. Some of the acting borders on melodrama (although not without warrant), and the electronic score by Underworld is occasionally more irritating and flatulent than compelling. But the movie takes its premise seriously, doesn’t simply milk it for cheap thrills, and has a great sense of wonder for its subject matter. There is a splendid moment when the crew just sits and watches Mercury transiting across the face of the sun, and we, too, just sit and watch along with them, because the sight of that is as exciting in its own way as seeing anything else in the movie. That’s the right idea.
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