Today’s science-fiction films are essentially set in the past: They take their visual and philosophical cues from ’30s serials, ’50s B movies, and ’60s TV series, or sometimes all that and more. The head-trip style of the late ’60s and early ’70s has been less commonly revived, but that’s where Trainspotting director Danny Boyle boldly goes with the blindingly vivid Sunshine. It plays as a companion piece to Steven Soderbergh’s commercially disastrous remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris—both films abandon space-cowboy swagger to explore the Big O of congress with the universe.
Set 50 years from now (but propelled by a score composed by John Murphy and late-’90s acid-house heroes Underworld), Sunshine sets its controls for the edge of the sun. The star is cooling down, billions of years ahead of scientists’ expectations. The Icarus II is carrying a payload that, if properly deployed, should restart the sun’s chain of nuclear reactions. “Icarus” is indeed an ominous handle, and of course there was an Icarus I, whose fate will soon be revealed. Both names are redolent of catastrophe, which should concentrate the minds of the Icarus II’s last-chance gang.
But in fact, the eight-person crew is prone to distraction. Composed mostly of Asians and Celts—apparently some cosmic disaster has already wiped out Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor—the members of this perilous expedition are ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to save Earth. Yet they can’t stop squabbling among themselves or going off the rails. The first clash is between Capa (Cillian Murphy), a science nerd who looks like a male model, and Mace (Chris Evans), a hothead who seems to still be playing the Human Torch. While Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) is all business, psychiatrist Searle (Cliff Curtis) is getting a little flighty. Cassie (Rose Byrne), Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), Trey (Benedict Wong), and Harvey (Troy Garity) are less defined, which suggests that they’ll perish fairly soon.
It’s not revealing too much to say that the Icarus II crew will be seriously depleted before the not-very-story-oriented story ends. Death and transfiguration are among the film’s central preoccupations, and Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland (collaborators since 2000’s The Beach) even borrow a bit of Alien’s slasher-in-space plot, along with their appropriations from the original Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey (yes, the ship is run by a chatty computer). Even though this fast-cut flick uses plenty of shock edits, the movie’s killings aren’t the sort that accelerate audience heartbeats. Visually beautiful and temperamentally abstract, Sunshine is no thriller. The movie suggests that falling into the sun is way cool—and that death is just a change of life, man.
Improbabilities abound, and a few are so grating that they should be mentioned. Icarus II’s computer is suspended in frigid coolant, so that in an emergency a crew member must submerge in the brain-freezing liquid to make repairs. At one point, the ship runs low on oxygen, but there’s no provision for switching to individual tanks rather than continuing to provide a breathable atmosphere for the entire, largely unoccupied vessel. And the notion that certain Earthlings would inevitably become unhinged sun worshippers upon coming close to the big orb sounds like the sort of wisdom dispensed in chill-out rooms by the stoners Boyle left behind after The Beach, another tale of an intense, insular subculture. In defense of the movie’s unpersuasive twists, however, it should be noted that they’re generally designed to further one formal goal: that none of the crew members die the same way.
Sunshine works not because it has any new ideas but because of its mesmerizing visual ingenuity. Shot mostly in an East London studio, with few conspicuous CGI effects, the film makes impressive use of elementary graphic connections, such as the kindred roundness and depth of the sun and the human eye. Where the directors of early sci-fi epics relied heavily on props and miniatures, Boyle builds his film’s look primarily on color: sizzling whites, smeared yellows, enveloping oranges, billowing reds. In a triumph of low-budget exoticness, Boyle extraterrestrializes the hot light of rave clubs and neon-lit streets. (The film’s style may very well have been influenced by the sci-fi interludes in Wong Kar-wai’s 2046.) The rational brain may reject Sunshine, but rationality isn’t the point. The movie’s spaceship could easily have been christened The Acid House instead of Icarus.