Reviewed by Sam Hatch
Is the human eye merely an organic tool for making life easier, or is it truly the window to our souls? Such questions of science and spirituality abound in director Danny Boyle's (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Millions) latest, a psychological sci-fi thriller set fifty years in the future as our sun enters its final throes of death. Cillian Murphy's Robert Capa is one of eight crewmembers aboard the Icarus II, a cramped spacecraft babysitting a gigantic nuclear bomb on a sixteen month journey toward the enormous gaseous body. They're mankind's last hope, caretakers of a mission hinging on the miniscule possibility that the weapon can jumpstart the core of the star and bring warmth back to planet Earth.
Interestingly, our planet is barely glimpsed within the body of the film. In the beginning there's only the opening Fox Searchlight logo as it's cleverly integrated into the movie proper with a landscape pan that zeroes in on the horizon's setting sun. The distant fireball grows larger and more powerful, until we realize that it's not a star at all – it's the reflection of the sun beaming back at us from the Icarus. The slender spacecraft is shielded by a massive array of gold leaf plates, the only thing keeping it from flaming out of existence.
Capa's introduction to Icarus II immediately beggars the question of what happened to the Icarus I? Come to find out, after seven years the fate of that original excursion is still relatively inconclusive, as nobody knows what went wrong, why they weren't successful and why they never made it back to Earth. This information drapes a pall of both mystery and fear over this subsequent flight, and soon enough a feeling gathers in the gut that somehow this can and probably will go very, very wrong.
Murphy's Capa is an isolated, uncommunicative genius. He's the physicist wunderkind behind ‘the payload' – an enormous, Manhattan-sized nuclear weapon that may save humanity (odd as that may sound). His primary antagonist is Chris Evans' Mace, a military lifer who has no problems with logical thinking and balancing the lives of the crew against the millions of people stuck on a frozen Earth. Unfortunately, he's also a bit of a pain in the ass. Early in the film he incites a testosterone-driven brawl with Capa after the latter character monopolizes the final hours of possible video communications with Earth.
The largely Asian and American crew is led by Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada of The Twilight Samurai and Ringu fame), a taciturn natural-born-leader who attempts to balance the gung-ho attitude of Mace with the needs of the more humane types on board. Rose Byrne's Cassie is one such empathic crewmember, the stereotypical touchy-feely female. Yet for all her similarities to Veronica Cartwright's character from Alien, she harbors a strength that keeps her from crumbling. The ship's resident tree-hugging hippie is Corazon (Michelle Yeoh, making a welcome turn as an actress without the need for kung-fu credibility), who tends the oxygen-generating plants necessary for survival. She could be the daughter of Bruce Dern's character from Silent Running.
Rounding out the cast is Benedict Wong's anxious flight navigator Trey, Kaneda's second in command Harvey (Troy Garity) and Cliff Curtis' intriguing ship psychologist Searle. Searle is one of a long line of tweaked cinematic head shrinkers. When he's not prescribing calming servings of holographic imagery to stressed crewmembers, he's sitting in the ship's heavily shielded viewing room, donning sunglasses and losing himself in the striking imagery of the ever-nearing star. He goes so far as to ignore warnings from the shipboard computer (a more feminine, less homicidal version of 2001's HAL) and resets the window screen so that he can experience three point one percent of the Sun's full power, a rash act that leaves his face blistered from just a half minute of contact.
The film's conceit is that if human beings are composed of matter that is essentially stardust, a heavenly body such as our own sun could theoretically be a god to us, and possibly even the God. The fact that humans cannot stare directly into the sun without risking blindness therefore strikes a parallel to the ethereal, impossible nature of looking into the face of God Himself. And ultimately, the kind of zap that kind of thinking can put on a person when they're floating in the middle of nothingness.
Boyle shows an almost Ridley Scott-like fascination with imagery relating to the eye. This ties into characters such as Searle and their fascinations with the sun, since the only body part they feel can truly assess the fiery orb's true nature (and possibly commune with God) is the one that is also the most vulnerable to it. There's also a sense that eyes are a key to recognizing someone's madness, lending credence to that old concept of the ‘window to the soul'.
Other motifs arise, and light in and of itself is seldom paid so much attention as it is here. Boyle and DP Alwin Küchler go out of their way to capture reflective artifacts, and one dialogue-driven scene in Capa's bunk is fully drenched in an expansive lens flare from start to finish. Returning 28 Days Later production designer Mark Tildesly creates some fantastic environments lifted from the imagination of NASA and consulting scientist Dr. Brian Cox (though not everything is so beholden to realism – the exterior shots of the spacecraft are repeatedly accompanied by loud, whooshing sounds impossible in the vacuum of space). Another strong player is the costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb, who has crafted some visually interesting clothing, the most notable of which being the rejiggered space suits that look like gilded versions of some of the weirder designs from David Lynch's Dune.
The music is also very effective, as frequent Boyle collaborator John Murphy has joined forces with the techno group Underworld to birth a rich sound palate that feels like a collision of the soundtrack albums for 28 Days Later and Lost in Translation. It's very moody, ambient material that sometimes blurs into the actual foley work – at one point a character encounters a distress call in space, and the plaintive singsong loop sounds like backing music at first.
That distress signal is quickly discovered to belong to none other than the long lost Icarus I. There's been no direct contact with survivors, but some members of the crew are more than willing to divert course long enough to inspect the derelict craft. The rest of the crew, namely Mace, are less than keen on this notion and wish to get back to the business of saving humanity itself. It incites plenty of great, Star Trek II-ish ‘needs of the many versus the needs of the few' soul-searching. Somehow Capa finds himself on the business end of these decisions, and Mace is all too eager to let him know what the stakes are should those decisions prove wrong.
There's a strong subtext of responsibility, for while Capa is constantly reminded that potential deaths may be lingering over his conscience, Trey is also nearly undone by guilt following an oversight in his calculations, damaging the ship's shield during a slight course alteration. He overreacts with an almost samurai sense of shame, and is put on suicide watch lest he decide it prudent to commit seppuku. It's a heavy situation, as all of the crewmembers are asked to consider a personal sacrifice at one time or another.
Unfortunately, to reveal much more would be to reveal too much. It's best going into Sunshine with an open mind, ready for any number of potential destinations. Early on it is hard to decipher whether it will be an entirely straight science fiction piece or a horror film or even an alien fantasy. I won't spill what happens, but I will say that events slowly grow stranger than I expected at one point. Some may disagree with where it goes, but Alex Garland's script is remarkably well written. When it does drop new elements into the mix, they are revealed subtly and effectively. It's similar in structure to Neil Marshall's excellent film The Descent, for in both films we follow a group of involving characters with very real problems before they encounter a set of more abstract obstacles.
Danny Boyle is a fascinating filmmaker, in that he never follows up a film with a similar product. Over the years he's tackled dark humor, dance films, horror, family pictures and more. He seems to be genuinely interested in stretching his boundaries, for even visually many of his films vary greatly. Just a few years ago he dropped the grimy, digitally shot pseudo-zombie flick 28 Days Later, whereas Sunshine is a much more polished looking anamorphically-lensed film. I often noticed similarities to moves utilized by director David Fincher - most notably a skewed, distorted camera effect that the latter employed in Alien 3, and also a brief segment involving single-frame splices of faces in an effect to heighten the tension.
Whether intentionally or not, the film also references plenty of other science fiction films, from classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien to unsung masterpieces like Steven Soderbergh's remake of Solaris and unpopular ventures such as 2010: Odyssey Two, Supernova and Event Horizon. The film also uses a basic plot almost identical to the one in Richard Sarafian's seldom seen 1990 film Solar Crisis. That film followed the exploits of a manned spaceflight (accompanied by a sentient computer) attempting to use nuclear weaponry to avert a solar flare threatening to destroy the Earth. It's probably coincidence, and Sunshine is clearly the superior film.
Watching Sunshine is a meditative experience, and one I found myself getting lost within as it progressed. Garland and Boyle are more than willing to tap into feelings of loneliness, isolation and overwhelming responsibility. It would be a sad film if not for scattered moments of levity and a sense of hopefulness buried in its core. It does have moments of thriller intensity and frisson-inducing plot revelations, but it also contemplates the terror of all-enveloping darkness and the inhuman nature of space travel.In a way, Sunshine could be a rallying cry for action in response to global warming (even though the film depicts a future of global cooling), as it clearly shows how mankind can gather together in a pinch and use its own technology to try saving itself from extinction. It can also be viewed as an intense character piece or as a visually charged thesis on the fine line between science and faith (or sanity and madness). In any case, it's a stylish, well-acted journey with stunning visual effects and is a solid addition to the science fiction genre.