It would seem that the universe, let alone a single movie, isn’t big enough to contain all the story ideas U.K. director Danny Boyle has floating around in his head. His latest sci-fi epic Sunshine is at least three movies in one, one of them being the best “humans in outer space” movie since Kubrick’s 2001 or Ridley Scott’s Alien.
Boyle wastes no time throwing us into the heart of the story: a group of astronauts are hurtling towards the sun in a last chance effort to re-ignite the dying star and save humanity back on Earth. To be sure there have been other, more Hollywood efforts like the ridiculous Core, but Boyle’s design is breathtakingly realistic as the Icarus II shoots across the dark reaches of space carrying the ultimate payload: an atomic bomb that has been built using all the remaining raw material available on Earth. The mission is one big Hail Mary, filled with uncertainty and blind hope, but if life on Earth (now locked in an eternal winter) is to continue, this mission is its last chance.
From the opening sequence, Sunshine straps us into the confined and pressure-filled spacecraft as the crew members prepare for their approach to the sun. Personal tensions exist, but the silent and devastating beauty of a vast universe fills the crew with both hope and the occasional nightmare. As they round the dark side of Mercury, they receive a distress signal from Icarus I, the ship with the same mission, launched and lost 16 months before. Faced with new information the crew makes the necessary risk assessment and decides that the option of having two possible payloads, two chances to jump start a star is worth the gamble, so they change course slightly and attempt to connect with Icarus I.
As you should expect things go splendidly wrong and Boyle’s Sunshine depicts a living hell in space, where the mission to save humanity rests solely in the hands of those desperate to succeed and seemingly doomed to fail.
It is a constant case with Danny Boyle’s films (with the possible exceptions of the honed and focused efforts Shallow Grave and Trainspotting) that he tries to pack in so many things that somehow the original strength of the story is lost. Like the video game sequence in The Beach or the introduction of the military in 28 Days Later, somewhere he gives us too much; goes too far. It’s a rare cinematic syndrome, especially when it is commonplace these days for films to be plainly empty and simply tired. But in Sunshine themes of human nature, universal anointment and an extraterrestrial date with destiny can’t all sit in the same room together, and the film shakes off its believable and emotionally grueling main premise when the crew meet up with the seemingly dead Icarus I.
From there, what begins as a truly masterful and tense human thriller about the dangers at the edge of space swings into horror mode when something, or someone sneaks aboard Icarus II. With oxygen in short supply this will prove fatal to both the crew and the mission, and the film suddenly plays out as a cat and mouse horror film in space. We’ve all seen that part before and while there are literally burning questions about the religious obedience to the great fire ball in the sky and humankind’s insignificant place in the universe, there simply isn’t enough… er, space in this movie to work it all out.
It’s true that what can make something a science fiction masterpiece is its ability to expand our minds and perspectives in regards to the possibilities away from the safety of our own Earth, and the first half of Sunshine achieves that. But when the science is forgotten and the fiction takes over we are faced with the difficult task of asking ourselves whether religion has any place in the minds of men, especially when confronted with the vastness of oblivion.