After director Danny Boyle’s first collaboration with novelist Alex Garland, The Beach (2000), turned out to be something of a damp squib, the pair decided that their next project together would be based instead on an original Garland screenplay, and the result was the post-9/11 zombie pic 28 Days Later… (2002). With Sunshine they have followed the same winning formula, only this time shifting their estimable genre savvy from horror to science fiction.
It is the year 2057, and the Sun is dying. A space crew of eight has been sent on a mission to dump a vast nuclear bomb into the Sun’s core, in the hope that, just maybe, this will bring new life to the fading star. As their spacecraft Icarus II approaches the Sun and enters the ‘dead zone’ beyond the range of any further contact with earth, a distress signal is picked up from Icarus I, which had disappeared without trace some seven years earlier. Against the wishes of many of his fellow crew, the on-board physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) decides that they should divert to the missing spaceship and try to recover its explosive payload. “Two last hopes”, as he puts it, “are better than one.”
A simple, human miscalculation sets off a chain of disastrous events that leave the surviving crew members fighting for breath amidst a rapidly depleting oxygen supply, and facing an unexpected new threat in one of the most inhospitable environments imaginable – with the fate of all humanity in their hands.
Mention the word ‘bomb’ (or ‘lemon’ or ‘turkey’) in a film, and you are tempting fate. Include the line “eight astronauts strapped to a bomb” in a science fiction film, and you risk courting critical ridicule. Yet even though Sunshine features this very line within its opening three minutes, it is a high-stakes gamble that well and truly pays off – in a film all about the most hubristic kind of gambles. It is not for nothing that the spaceships in this film are all named after the boy from Greek myth who flies too close to the Sun.
Though set some fifty years into the future, Sunshine casts plenty of light on the anxieties of the present. Here we have a world facing environmental disaster, a population (embodied by the ship’s crew) vying for dwindling supplies, and, most crucially of all, a deadly battle between the ideologies of science and religion. It is on this last point that the film proves most interesting – for it plays like the Old and New Testaments as they might be rewritten, paradoxically enough, by scientists. An elemental force of creation and destruction, acts of self-sacrifice on behalf of all humanity, death and rebirth, a literally ‘luciferian’ villain, unquantifiable miracles, an almighty apocalypse and climactic rapture – all these ‘biblical’ elements are present and correct in Garland’s script, but the first time that ‘God’ gets so much as a mention, it is on the lips of an insane zealot hell-bent on ushering in the ‘last days’.
Sunshine makes knowing nods at the cosmic wonder of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact and The Fountain, at the aerial suicide missions of Deep Impact and Armageddon, and at the celestial terror of Alien and Event Horizon – there is even a bit of John Carpenter’s Dark Star in there, although none of that film’s laughs. At the same time Sunshine is canny enough to avoid being reducible to the sum of its parts, and finds a perfect balance between claustrophobic thrills and eye-goggling awe. It is, consequently, a pure joy from start to finish. The script skilfully sketches characters under the most extreme of physical, psychological and spiritual pressures, Doyle raises tension to its absolute outer limits, and the film’s spectacular CG imagery and lighting effects will have viewers quickly converting to the belief that the Sun, source of all life, is a divine force of overwhelming majesty.
Sunshine lets viewers not just meet, but also have a close encounter with, their Maker – so sit back, stare up, and don’t forget your shades. This film is hot!