© 2007 Ray Wong
It's been a while since a science fiction film captured our imagination and emotions the way 2001: Space Odyssey and Alien did. The promotion of Danny Boyle's Sunshine often refers to the the aforementioned classics, and not without reasons.
The year is 2057, and our Sun is dying, and Earth has entered an ice age. After the first attempt failed seven years before, a group of scientist-astronauts were sent to re-ignite the star. The Sun is destroying itself from the inside by a dark matter, and the astronauts are to deliver a payload (basically a nuclear fusion bomb) the size of Manhattan to the center of the Sun.
They've traveled for 16 months in a ship called Icarus II: they have a self-sustaining life support system (home grown food, recycled water, replenished oxygen, etc.) But being cooped up for such a long time makes the crew lose perspective from time to time. As they reach Mercury, they receive a distress signal from the previous crew on Icarus I. They decide to divert their course to unite with Icarus I, trying to reclaim their payload as a backup. Things go terribly wrong when navigation officer Trey (Benedict Wong) makes a serious mistake. When they finally arrive at Icarus I, the mission runs into serious trouble -- not only is their own survival in jeopardy, but the fate of the human race is in question as they are Earth's only hope.
The international cast is excellent. As physicist Capa, Cillian Murphy (Breakfast on Pluto) shines with his broody, understated performance as the man with the mission-critical responsibility: he is the only person who knows exactly how to operate the bomb. Conflicted, uncertain, and soulful, the character comes to life in Murphy's impeccable hands. As Mace, Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) shows his dramatic chops as the aggressive astronaut whose only concern is the success of the mission. Murphy and Evans play off each other very well.
Japanese superstar Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai) is effectively determined, sullen, and heroic as Captain Kaneda. Cliff Curtis (Live Free and Die Hard) is interesting as inquisitive Searle. Rose Byrne (Marie Antoinette) gives a sincere, sweet, and strong performance as Cassie. Michelle Yeoh (Memoirs of a Geisha) is solid as biologist Corazon, the nurturing mother figure in the cast. Benedict Wong (Code 46) is heartbreaking as the navigation officer whose mistakes put everyone and the mission in danger. Troy Garity (After the Sunset) effectively show the lack of spine as communication officer Harvey. And Mark Strong (Stardust) has a mostly "unseen" role as Captain Pinbacker of Icraus I.
Written by Alex Garland (28 Days Later), the script retains the somber, dire tone of his previous films. The first half of the film is wonderful, probably one of the best sci-fi in recent years with its intelligent dialogue, exquisite setups, interesting character studies, and moody settings. One can see the parallels between Sunshine and, say, 2001: Space Odyssey and Alien. The premise is somewhat far-fetched, but Garland explains it just well enough to suspend our disbelief. The psychological aspect of the film is also spot-on, leaving us with a tense feeling through and through. The film also brilliantly examines themes such as duty, destiny, leadership, heroism, humanity, and spirituality.
Unfortunately, the story takes on a bizarre, and uneven turn after the characters arrive at Icarus I. And the tone of the film changes from a pure man vs. nature disaster sci-fi to a man vs. man horror/thriller. And that switch disappoints, not only because it's incredulous, but also for the derivative execution. The story loses its focus and the plot stretches its credibility. That's when the film tries too hard to be Alien.
Director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) brings a beautiful vision to the production. The special effects are spectacular, and the moody sets hark back to the greatest sci-fi films in history. Boyle also effectively uses techniques such as extreme close-ups, suspenseful camera angles, colors and lighting to great effects. The first half of the film truly is a masterpiece, one of the best for the genre. Unfortunately, Boyle also falls prey to the second half of the story, resorting to fast cuts, shaky-cam, jerky camera movements and confusing action sequences. The film also loses its vision by following a more standard slasher-horror approach and hurrying toward the denouement (which is actually rather eloquent on its own). The result is uneven at best, and contrived at worst.
Over all, Sunshine is the the gem it could have been, because of the last act. Yet, it is a great departure from the garbage Hollywood is doling out every year. The first two-thirds of the film is an excellent reason to see the film on the big screen. It's just a shame that the sunshine flames out at the end.
Stars: Cillian Murphy, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Alex Garland
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: R for violent content and language
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.8 out of 10