In "Sunshine," the newest film from Danny Boyle, the sun looms like the unseeing eye of an incomprehensibly vast god in front of a group of eight scientists who are traveling toward it to make one final plea for the continuation of mankind with the help of a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan. On the basis of this set-up, "Sunshine" makes a case for space existentialism. The sun, it offers, is as close a thing, empirically, as we’ll have to God: massive, awe-inspiring and responsible for the endurance of most life on Earth, it’s also insentient and therefore completely indifferent to humanity’s desperate flounderings for survival.
It’s a good thing Boyle, whose impossible to categorize career has leapt from bravura breakout "Trainspotting" to zombiepocalypse film "28 Days Later" to the slightly slushy kids flick "Millions," is always such an imminently watchable director. "Sunshine" may have some of the grand and solemn coffee shop philosophies of certain 70s sci-fi films, but it plays out like a smart, taut combination of "Event Horizon" and "2010." (Oh, hush now, "2010"’s not so bad.) You could also connect the dots to "2001," "Supernova," maybe even "Dark Star," but as Boyle himself points out, "these films tend to boil down to the same three ingredients: a ship, a crew and a signal." It how you use those ingredients that matters, and Boyle has teased out of his an often astoundingly suspenseful film. Its strength lies in its grounded physicality â€” we’re constantly aware of the fragility of the tenuous existence sustained by the crew of the inauspiciously named Icarus II (the Icarus I, launched seven years before, failed to complete its mission, its fate unknown).
The goal of the Icarus II is to reignite the sun, which, in 2057, is dying. The bomb, dropped into the center of the sun, will hopefully do this, though the ship’s physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) acknowledges that the plan is entirely theoretical â€” they have no way of knowing if it will actually work. The other carefully selected crew members include the ship’s pilot (Rose Byrne), an engineer (Chris Evans), a navigator (Benedict Wong), a communications officer (Troy Garity), a psychiatrist (Cliff Curtis), a biologist (Michelle Yeoh) and the captain (Hiroyuki Sanada). It’s a uniformly gifted international cast, with Evans, previously known for strutting in a suit of computer-generated flames as Johnny Storm in the "Fantastic Four" films, is a nice surprise as the pragmatic Ace, who frequently clashes with Murphy’s abstract-minded Capa.
There is, always, a signal, and things start to go wrong when the Icarus II runs across one from the Icarus I, stalled out, apparently intact, right at the end of its journey. Capa makes the call that they’ll rendezvous with the apparently abandoned ship, thinking that two bombs, and two chances at dropping them, are better than one. Can anything good come of it? Has "Event Horizon" really dropped so far out of the public consciousness 50 years from now? "Sunshine" races to an effective ending, but is never quite as good as when the cabin feverish crew members were causing their own problems.
Boyle is always a gifted visual stylist, and "Sunshine" makes great use of running imagery of fire and ice, as well as of the sun itself, suitable daunting when glimpsed from an observation room through a heavily filtered screen. His best asset, though, may be Murphy, with his angular, boyish physique, otherworldly air, and sinister beauty â€” he’s a notably remote and unexpected potential savior of humanity.
"Sunshine" opens wide on July 20th.
+ "Sunshine" (Fox Searchlight)