Sunshine is the best kind of hard science fiction film. It’s smart, evocative, thoughtful, and thrilling, and it makes sure that the “science” part is accounted for. Director Danny Boyle and the rest of the of the crew have decided to make a film that takes place only in space — save for one scene on Earth — that deals with science and religion, and about the different personalities aboard a ship that, for all intents and purposes, will not be returning home.
The Sun is failing, you see, and in order to fix that, a team of scientists have gone up in a spaceship in order to put a bomb inside of it. I’m not sure if you can get a simpler plot than that, although everything will, assuredly, not go as planned. They’re aboard the Icarus II, after all, and if there’s one thing that sci-fi films love to do, it’s throw in previous versions of ships that shouldn’t still be alive, yet somehow are. And the Sun is also always bearing down, which poses a potential hazard to anyone who might want to, I dunno, go outside for a little while. Or even look out there without some very special protection.
Basically, things start going wrong once the decision is made to respond to the distress signal made by Icarus I, which was sent up into space seven years prior to perform the same task. Crew members start dying one by one, and you can almost see exactly where Sunshine is going to take you as soon as this occurs. I wasn’t exactly surprised by anything I saw within the film, but that didn’t make it resonate any less. I was awestruck by some of the things shown to us.
The crew of Icarus II (Hiroyuki Sanada, Troy Garity, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong and Cliff Curtis) all have interesting personalities. These personalities factor in and actually come into play, too, which is always a bonus. When a decision needs to be made, you already know what each character is thinking and that there is going to be some conflict. Some of the secondary characters aren’t as fully realized as those given to the bigger-name actors, but you’ll still understand where they’re coming from most of the time.
Sunshine also looks great, particularly for its small-ish budget. Costing just over $30 million, this is a science fiction piece that doesn’t look cheap. The special effects are spectacular, the ship and set designs are fabulous, and I believed that these people were in space. The scene where they pass by Mercury and just stare at it for a minute or so really drives this point home, and then you’re sold on it for the rest of the film’s running time.
I was also sold on the science, as there weren’t very many moment when I questioned what was going on. Could it all happen? Probably not, but I didn’t think about that while it was going on. Among the credits is scientific adviser Brian Cox, and I’m going to just believe that the filmmakers took his recommendations to make this film as realistic as possible. Sure, there are some parts that seem a little silly when taking a step back, but you’re so immersed while it’s playing that they hardly matter.
Religion becomes a topic that’s touched upon throughout, although it’s more in the background than shouted to the heavens. I don’t really want to spoil it, but just keep in mind exactly what happens before characters start being picked off, and whether or not they’ve had an epiphany of sorts. From where I’m sitting, as soon as a character — a logical scientist who thinks and acts as such all the time — starts allowing the idea of miracles or a god into their minds, things go badly. Does that make it an atheist movie?
Sunshine doesn’t always feel original. There are definitely elements of 2001, Solaris, Event Horizon — even Alien is in there a bit. But the way that it comes together makes it so very much worth watching. The imagery that is generated is beautiful, and if you don’t feel some sort of emotion while watching many of the scenes, then something might be wrong with you. It’s a surprisingly emotional film, but it’s also thrilling, which is a tough balance to pull off.
You could watch Sunshine a half-dozen times and still get something out of it. It has that kind of depth, and having only seen it once, I can tell you I will be seeing it again sometime soon. After you’ve seen it the first time and have a decent grasp of everything that goes on, you can look more closely and figure more things about, learning more about what it wants to say and interpreting it in different ways. And yes, perhaps you’ll also notice some more implausible science. That just comes with the territory.
Sunshine is, without question, a great film. It’s thoughtful, evocative, smart, thrilling, and will make you feel something. It’s one of those rare science fiction films that’s interested in both the characters and the science that makes its plot possible. It’ll give you something to think about once it’s done playing, and might make you tear up while it’s playing. It looks great as well, despite a relatively low budget. It deserves multiple viewings, and if you get the chance, I urge you to see it at least twice.