Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. Along with Robert Frost and Al Gore, most of us favor the fire hypothesis these days. But Sunshine (Fox Searchlight), the new sci-fi thriller directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), asks us to give some serious consideration to the ice theory. What if, 50 years from now, the sun were burning out as the Earth descended into frozen darkness? What if a previous mission to reignite our solar system’s star with a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan had disappeared without a trace? And what if a second ship, ominously named Icarus II (because flying into the sun worked out so well for Icarus) embarked seven years later in an attempt to do the same thing?
Here’s a hint: That would suck, especially if you were part of the eight-member international crew sworn to restart the sun, die trying, or both. As the film opens, Capt. Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) is informing the crew that they’re about to enter the “dead zone,” a region close enough to the sun’s surface that transmissions to and from Earth will soon become impossible. Capa (Cillian Murphy), the mission’s physicist, is the last one able to record and send a message to his family, provoking a shoving match with Mace (Chris Evans), the hotheaded engineer. Meanwhile, medical officer Searle (Cliff Curtis) is developing a quasitheological (and thoroughly skin-damaging) obsession with staring at the sun. The two females on board are better at holding it together: Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) tends plants in the ship’s self-sustaining oxygen garden, while Cassie (Rose Byrne) pursues a slow-burn flirtation with Capa (who, for a world-class nuclear scientist, is pretty emo).
Shortly thereafter, the ship picks up a signal from an unexpected place: It’s a distress call from Icarus I. After a tense vote, the crew agrees to divert their mission and locate the other ship. But a crew member makes a fatal navigation mistake, and, bit by bit, the Icarus II, with its fragile self-contained ecosystem, and even more precarious social order, begins to fall apart.
The experience of watching Sunshine is one of nearly relentless tension, a sticky-palmed dread that takes on literally cosmic proportions as the story progresses. For the first hour or more, that feeling is a very good thing. But it’s a shame that a film that starts out with such a beautifully constructed story—each misstep leads with a sickening logic to the next—should lose it so completely in the last act. “Don’t worry, we’re not going to be picked off by aliens,” one crew member dryly reminds another as they explore the spooky ghost ship, and for most of the film’s running time, he’s right. But there’s a development in the last half-hour that’s so corny (not to mention outright confusing—for more head-scratching details, listen to the Spoiler Special on Sunshine) that you wouldn’t be surprised to see Sigourney Weaver run by in her underwear, pursued by a gooey space beast.
As consolation, Sunshine looks spectacular from the “wow” opening to the “wha?” finale. The ship’s physical geography is painstakingly and effectively established, with design details that set it apart from familiar sci-fi vessels. The gold-plated spacesuits and the ship’s immense gold shield suggest some strange Aztec armor, and the lush oxygen garden is breathtaking.
In moments—the early moments—Sunshine can feel like a new genre classic, albeit one heavily in debt to its predecessors. Boyle boldly combines the philosophical grandiosity of 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris with the claustrophobic melodrama of Das Boot and the Faustian allegory of Forbidden Planet. It’s an ambitious gambit, and the director’s hubris, like Icarus’, comes back to smite him in the end. Still, you’ve gotta give the guy credit for flying this close to the sun.