By Matt Singer
[Photo: Cillian Murphy in “Sunshine,” Fox Searchlight, 2007]
Their first mistake was naming their ship the Icarus. Icarus, a character from Greek mythology, was able to fly on artificial wings, but grew too enamored with his power, flew too close to the sun, melted his wings and fell to his death. I certainly get the symbolism, but if you were on a last-ditch mission to save all of humanity by delivering a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan to the heart of the sun, wouldn’t you name the rocket you were traveling in something a bit more optimistic?
Their second mistake was in embarking on this mission during a Danny Boyle thriller. The talented director of brutal films like “Shallow Grave” and “28 Days Later” has no compunction about putting his casts, and his audience, through emotional roller coasters. If you were headed to the sun in a Spielberg film, you probably stand a better-than-even shot of coming home alive. In Boyle’s version, the crew of the Icarus is looking down the wrong end of some seriously long odds. Boyle’s films aren’t “feel-good” entertainment but they are feel-something entertainment, which should count for something nowadays.
Their third mistake is a well-intentioned bad decision. Technically, the eight heroes looking to save mankind are aboard the Icarus II Icarus I was lost before it could deliver its payload and when the crew orbits Mercury, the planet’s iron content acts as a huge antennae. Harvey, the communications officer (Troy Garity), picks up the Icarus I’s distress signal and Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) puts it to the man in charge of their stellar bomb, Capa (Cillian Murphy): investigate the Icarus I, and potentially acquire another payload and another change to reignite the sun, or maintain their course and their mission. Capa reasons that two bombs and two chances are better than one and one, so the crew intercepts their drifting predecessor. And then things go horribly wrong.
“Sunshine” has been marketed as a cerebral science-fiction film (it even prompted us to discuss that very topic on this week’s IFC News Podcast) but it’s much more visceral than that. To be sure, there are plenty of “big ideas” mostly about the morality of mankind intervening in God’s plan for the Earth, and whether such a God or a plan even exists at all but at times, especially near the end, this is more “Jason X” than “2001: A Space Odyssey,” if only “Jason X” were a good film with characters we cared about.
Once the Icarus II heads to Icarus I, the entire movie is like a giant cinematic sweat box, and that’s meant as a compliment. The crew members are closer than anyone has ever been to the source of all life, and imminent death hangs around every corner. “Sunshine”‘s trailer employed the score from “Requiem For a Dream,” and that’s a fitting choice I walked out of both films with a similar feeling of exhaustion, like I’d run a marathon without the requisite training.
Boyle’s grip on our emotions is so precise it’s nearly as frightening as the film itself: few filmmakers are as adept at wringing terror out of an empty room or a simple pile of dust. He’s such a capable filmmaker, he gets us so wrapped up in the Icarus’ plight that we don’t have time to notice just how silly some of the film is. In someone else’s hands, the idea of a crispy naked guy shouting philosophical gibberish while breathing heavily would be absolutely laughable. At moments like that, Boyle flies pretty close to the sun. But his wings are made of stronger stuff than wax.
“Sunshine” opens in wide release on July 20th (official site).