This grim drama about a desperate attempt to save the world from extinction falls just short of being one of 2007’s best films. Although seriously flawed in a couple of ways, SUNSHINE tells its core story – of a (virtual suicide) mission to re-ignite the dying sun – with a soul-shattering conviction that is utterly engrossing. Alex Garland’s screenplay presents a refreshingly hard science-fiction approach that remains rooted in believable reality – more NASA than STAR WARS – and director Danny Boyle serves it up with an unsentimental seriousness worthy of the high-stakes storyline. Had the screenplay not descended into schlock in the third act, this might have ranked among the classics of the genre. As it stands, the film deserved Oscar nominations in technical categories: art direction, photography, and visual effects create a vision of space travel as spectacular and unique as anything ever seen on screen.
The premise is that the crew of the Icarus II are piloting a bomb that will, hopefully, restore the dimming sun in time to save life on Earth. Hanging like a cloud of doom over their heads is the knowledge that, over a year before, the Icarus I disappeared on a similar mission, raising the questions: “What went wrong?” and “How can Icarus II avoid repeating it?” But the truly important question hanging over the film (the same one addressed in CHILDREN OF MEN) is: What sacrifices are individual humans willing to make when the surival of the entire species is at stake?
This raises interesting moral questions of a kind that a lesser film would ignore altogether. This first becomes apparent when Icarus II detects a distress signal from Icarus I, and the navigator, Trey (Benedict Wong), says he can plot an intercept course. Mace (Chris Evans) angrily denounces the idea, pointing out that their mission priority outweighs every other consideration, including not just the lives of the Icarus I crew but their own as well. In a simpler screenplay, this cold-hearted utilitarian reasoning would brand Mace as the villain (or at least the asshole) of the group, but SUNSHINE makes it clear that he is, under the circumstances, correct.
The rest of the story relates the results of the fateful decision to overrule Mace. Captain Kaneda (RINGU’s Hiroyuki Sanada) defers the decision to Capa (Cillian Murphy). The physicist’s decision is based not on consideration for the lives (if any) aboard Icarus I. Rather, the question is whether obtaining the bomb from Icarus I (and thus doubling the chances of successfully completing the mission) outweigh the potential risks of altering course. The variables are too complex to calculate to a certainty, so Capa makes a gut decision to pick up the extra bomb.
The remainder of the scenario details a series of complications that result from this decision. Trey makes a mistake recalculating the course, which results in damage to the ship; a repair attempt costs the life of one crew member. Docking with Icarus I leads to another disaster when the ships are mysterious torn apart. Later, a fire breaks out, destroying the Icarus II’s greenhouse, the ship’s source not only for food but also for oxygen on the months-long journey through the vacuum of space.
Eventually, the mission boils down to a dreadful moral choice: there is not enough oxygen left aboard Icarus to support the remaining crew members for the remainder of the mission. The only solution is that one of the survivors must die. Who will it be, and who will perform the execution?
Unfortunately, at this point, SUNSHINE begins to fall apart. The moral issue is evaded by having one of the crew turn up conveniently dead – apparently a suicide. Yet still the oxygen consumption is too much. It is hardly giving anything away (since this detail is revealed in the trailer) to acknowledge that there is an unknown person aboard Icarus, and out past the orbit of Mercury there is only place that someone could have come from: Icarus I. The fire was actually sabotage; the “suicide” was actually murder.
In order to motivate this behavior, the script relies on that tired old stand-by, religious mania. As if that were not enough cliche, the perpetrator is presented courtesy of some weird, blurry photographic effect that suggests an inter-dimensional alien. SUNSHINE devolves from serious science-fiction to routine stalk-and-slash tactics; it is as if 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY had suddenly been hijacked by ALIEN.
Danny Boyle directs the pulp horror of the third act well enough. The threat may be contrived, but our characters still have to find some way to overcome it and save life on Earth, resulting in at least one great set-piece: a nail-bitingly heart-rending scene in which one character must effect repairs on Icarus by descending into the freezing cold liquid that prevents the ship’s core from overheating. This is one of those sequences almost worth the price of admission alone (comparable the eerie scene in Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS, in which a mysterious life form revives after a suicide attempt that involves drinking freezing cold liquid nitrogen).
One suspects Boyle has a certain predilection for this kind of thing, as if he needs the big dramatic action to galvanize him. Certainly, the early section, meant to convey the boredom of a long space flight, is marred by an overly artsy approach that seems almost smug in its self-satisfaction. Every angle, every camera move, every dissolve and special effect seems designed with portentous intent, layered on so thick as to become off-putting. Fortunately, once the story kicks in, Boyle sets the pretentious stylization aside – or at least welds it so well to the story that they no longer stand out like a sore thumb.
Ultimately, SUNSHINE attempts to make some kind of statement about the conflict between faith and reason, but the message is muddled by reducing one half of the discourse to the level of a matinee villain. Fortunately, the underlying theme is strong enough to carry the film over its descent into genre conventions. The turn toward melodrama undermines some believability, but the story, with its heroes forced to make almost unendurable sacrifices, remains emotionally riveting. Watching it feels, at times, like being trapped aboard a ship on a hopeless mission, but when the last image fades, you will be glad you underwent the journey.
The DVD presents SUNSHINE in widescreen with audio options for English 5.1 Dolby Digital and Spanish and French Dolby Surround, along with optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles. Bonus Features include two audio commentaries, deleted scenes, web production diaries, and two short films.
The twelve deleted scenes are mostly expository moments meant to establish the characters or clarify the logistics of the action. There is a talky alternate version of the final confrontation with the villain, which was apparently meant to provide intellectual element to the physical conflict. All of these sequences have optional audio commentary by Danny Boyle.
The Web Production Diaries provide the cast and crew short vignettes to talk about themselves and their involvement with the film. Particularly interesting are the comments from the physicists hired to oversee the scientific accuracy of the film.
The audio commentaries are by Danny Boyle and Dr. Brian Cox. Boyle is good at providing the nuts and bolts information about bringing the difficult project to the screen, but Cox’s commentary is even more interesting, perhaps because it is not the sort of thing one usually hears on these DVDs.
Basically, Cox addresses the issues of scientific accuracy versus dramatic license and points out where Danny Boyle drew the line between them. Cox notes that, according to current scientific theory, the sun should not die out for billions of years, but he was able to fashion a theory that would account for the scenario in the film. Although never specifically stated in the film itself, Cox tells us that the sun has been diminished by the presence of a “Q-Ball,” a theoretical particle disrupting the fusion reaction that fuels the sun. The bomb on board Icarus II is not mean to reignite the sun but to destroy the Q-Ball, allowing the sun to return to normal.
The two short films are “Dad’s Dead” and “Mole Hills.” Neither has anything to do with SUNSHINE. Danny Boyle included them because he thinks DVDs are an opportunity to bring short subjects to a wider audience.
SUNSHINE(2007). Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by Alex Garland. Cast: Cillian Murph, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong, Mark Strong, Chippo Chung (voice of Icarus).