Danny Boyle could make watching paint dry compelling. From the frenzy of Trainspotting to the starkly spare wide shots of a barren London in 28 Days Later, Boyle has shown repeatedly his skill as a visual filmmaker. Even a weaker piece like The Beach dazzles the eye. Sunshine is no exception. From the moment the film announces itself with an astonishing shot of sun, space, and ship, Sunshine is a sight to be seen. But it is also more.
Working sci-fi here with the same ease with which he handled horror in 28 Days Later, Boyle recasts the genre far from the sheen of Lucas’ most recent space visions. It is gritty, dark, and thrilling. You can see the grease on the ship’s walls. Much as with his zombie film, the outlandish story here greatly benefits from Boyle’s grounding treatment. Set in 2057, Sunshine follows the flight of Icarus II, a massive, shielded space ship sent to revive our dying sun and prevent the extinction of earth and humanity. No light task. Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) leads a dedicated crew, among them physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy), pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne), biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), and engineer Mace (Chris Evans). Their mission is to deliver the ‘payload,’ a mammoth nuke, into the sun, set it off, and jet. Icarus I, missing for seven years, never managed.
Sunshine throws at its players more than just the usual celestial complications — an asteroid here, a punctured wall there — instead grinding its drama mostly from good old-fashioned cabin fever. Long into their journey but only soon after we meet them, the crew of Icarus II receive a distress signal. Could it be Icarus I? That question and the subsequent one of what to do exposes fault lines in the tight-knit crew. Macho Mace is soon beating up on the more cerebral Capa, whilst others fall to either corner and bicker accordingly. This could be high school pap, but Boyle and the performers never forget the stakes. There are no egos, only the mission, and disagreements on how it should be executed. With the sun looming and tempers rising, the tension is perpetual.
All performers bring to the film a marked intensity. Sanada is noble and controlled as the captain, and Evans is no mere brute as the most aggressive member of the crew. He is a hothead, but the heat stems from a dedication to the mission that is always detectable on Evans’ furrowed features. Byrne and Yeoh provide Icarus II with an emotional core, the former effective as a professional but yearning love interest and the latter in her meticulous fascination with the ship’s oxygen garden. Each actor pursues their personal goals with an endearing vigor.
However, it is Murphy who competes most forcefully with the sun for the attention of viewers. Murphy has a naturally intelligent demeanor suitable for the role of physicist and a gentleness befitting his calm lead. But he bristles with force when all starts to go haywire and he takes the inevitable role of leader in his stride. It is a versatile performance from an actor who consistently shines in each of his roles.
Those haywire sections of Sunshine may divide its audience. While there are some undeniably astonishing sequences — the indiscriminate sunlight chasing Capa and Kaneda on a space walk is as good an astronaut heart-thumper as you’re likely to see — a third act twist might turn some off. Let’s just say that things get a little Event Horizon and the tone shifts jarringly.
Depending on your predilection for horror, you’re likely to go one of two ways. You may feel cheated that the subtlety and tension of the first two acts culminates in what is effectively a slasher finish with a bit of God delusion added for good measure. Or, like me, you might relish the genre-bending Boyle’s change in gears. There’s a message in it that focuses the philosophies of the rest of the film. It is man that can save humanity, and man who could ultimately destroy it.
DVD extras include two commentary tracks, deleted scenes, two (unrelated) short films, and more.
It’s gonna be a bright… really bright, sunshiny day.