Sunshine: Danny Boyle’s Sci-Fi Horror

Though based on a relatively unexplored idea, “Sunshine,” Danny Boyle’s follow-up to “28 Days Later,” is a sci-fi-actioner-horror feature that’s more of an up-to-date summation of these genres than breaking new grounds, thematically or artistically.

“Sunshine” opens in the U.K. and other countries in April, but stateside Fox Searchlight decided to push the release from late March to September, perhaps thinking that the movie is more appropriate as an entry of the fall season. Question is, how helpful or damaging would the foreign reviews and box-office grosses on the film in America.

Very much in the vein of Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece “2001: Space Odyssey” and Ridley Scott’s scary “Alien,” Peter Hyams’ “2010,” “Sunshine” doesn’t believe in pure genres, instead blending, twisting, reinventing (and rehashing) conventions seen before.

If the narrative and characterization of “Sunshine” were as innovative and arresting as its visual, technical, and sound values, it would have been a great film. But they are not, and thus the resulting work is an intermittently enjoyable, sporadically involving tale in which arresting images overwhelm, and sometime even bury, the rather slender text.

There’s no doubt that the most powerful moments in “Sunshine” are those without any dialogue or words, acts that are totally relying on brilliant visual and audio special effects.

The creative team behind this picture, producer Andrew Macdonald, writer Alex Garland, and director Danny Boyle, have previously collaborated on “28 Days Later” and other films, so there is a sense of continuity, though “Sunshine” is not as satisfying as “28 Days Later.”

In many ways, “Sunshine” evidences dramatic problems that also prevail in other Boyle-Garland collaborations (specifically “The Beach”): Intriguing set up, nice buildup in the first reel, and dramatic inertia in the later chapter that prove frustrating.

The film’s premise is rather promising: In the year 2057, the Sun is dying and mankind faces extinction. The last hope of Earth lies with the Icarus II, a spacecraft with a crew of eight men and women led by Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada). Their mission, put simply, is to deliver a nuclear device designed to re-ignite our fading sun.

Deep into their voyage, out of radio contact with Earth, the crew hears a distress beacon from the Icarus I, the spacecraft that had disappeared on the same mission seven years earlier. A terrible accident throws the new mission into jeopardy. Soon, the crew members find themselves fighting not only for their lives and their sanity, but also for the future of all mankind.

As expected, the group is multicultural and multi-national, eschewing toward strong Asian presence, though it’s never explains why. The crew is composed of one Asian (Michelle Yeoh) and one white woman (Rose Byrne), two Asian men, but the main protagonists are white, played by Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Mark Strong, and Cillian Murphy.

The film’s nominal hero is Capa (Murphy, who was also in “28 Days Later”), the Icarus II’s physicist and the only crewmember who really knows hot to operate the incredibly sophisticated bomb the ship is carrying. Most of the tale is told from Capa’s POV, and Murphy is such a likable actor that it’s easy for us as viewers to project onto him our fears and hopes.

Capa is often in conflict with Mace (Chris Evans of “The Fantastic Four” fame), the ship’s engineer, who’s from a military family and is therefore cut and dry and morally uncomplicated. The only man on board who understands exactly how the ship operates, Mace is a man of action who aims to find solutions to problems as they arise. He’s also more adept than the others at operating rationally under pressure and in crisis.

Troy Garity (Jane Fonda’s son) is cast as
Harvey, the ship’s Communication Officer and the second in command to the Captain. Icarus II’s Medical Officer Searle is played by New Zealander Cliff Curtis. Serving as doctor and psychiatrist, Searle becomes obsessed with the Sun, particularly after realizing what went wrong with the previous mission. To that extent, he’s willing to use himself as a guinea pig.

Of the women, Michelle Yeoh plays the crucial role of Corazon, the biologist in charge of the Icarus II’s oxygen garden, the ship’s primary source of oxygen and fresh food. The other female is Cassie (Rose Byrne), the pilot of Icarus II and the most emotional member of the crew, often wearing her heart on her sleeves.

It’s a testament to the writing and the acting that the various crew members don’t come across as types. This becomes clear in the subjective way that each one of them deals with the issue of survival and death. While some accept the dangerous situation honorably, others panic, and still others handle it spiritually. “Sunshine” touches upon the issue of man versus nature, or to what extent we have the right as human beings to change the course of nature or to go against nature.

In a recent interview, Danny Boyle said that he was intrigued by the novelty of the movie’s concept: “Nobody has made a movie about the Sun, and the Sun is the single thing more important than any other thing. If it blinks out, we’re all dead in eight minutes. I thought that was a fantastic idea.”

Fair enough. But the film is less effective in sustaining narrative momentum, and in conveying the emotional and psychological effects of the mission on the individual members as they draw closer and closer to the source of life in the universe. This is particularly problematic in the film’s second half, which feels too much like a string of loosely connected set-pieces.

As far as sci-fi films are concerned, “Sunshine” draws its inspiration more from “2001” than from the “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” film series. Visually, it’s amazing to observe how prophetic and influential Kubrick’s ideas and images are four decades after he made his picture. Some scenes unfold like updated images and sounds of Kubrick’s 1968 picture and Peter Hyams’ “2010” (which was about Jupiter). I could also detect the influence of the “Alien”-Aliens” series (by Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and even David Fincher), Bob Zemeckis’ “Contact,” with Jodie Foster, and even “Das Boot,” in the effects of confined space on group dynamics.

As expected, there are internal conflicts within the group over issues of leadership and decision-making. One of the interesting aspects of the tale is the juxtaposition between an expert’s opinion based on scientific information and a democratic vote in which every member has one vote.

Structurally, the movie begins as pure sci-fi feature, then gradually turns into a survival adventure, and finally concludes as a horror flick, when it turns out that there is a vicious unaccountable alien on the spaceship whose goal is to abort the mission and kill the members.

At the risk of denigrating the script, I’d like to suggest that the last reel feels like an Agatha Christie’s mystery (“And Then There Were None”). It unfolds as a guessing game, in which the audience is asked to predict who will be killed next and who will survive at the end. Fortunately, “Sunshine” doesn’t make the mistake of the “Alien” movies, in which race played a factor in determining the sequential order in which the crew members got killed. You may recall that the first victims were Latinos and blacks, followed by women, and that at the end the only survivors were a white male and a white female.

The film is book-ended by a text message that Capa (Cillian Murphy) sends to his sister and nephews, one that concludes the saga on a relatively positive note.

Among other rewards, Boyle urges you to think of the Sun and what it represents in a different way. I have no knowledge to assess the tale’s scientific foundations, but he filmmakers claim that they relied heavily on the opinions of experts and consultants.

The film’s first image, a huge blinding sun, is nothing short of brilliant; if only the narrative that follows could have been just as exciting…

Cast

Capa (Cillian Murphy)
Nace (Chris Evans)
Cassie (Rose Byrne)
Corazon (Michelle Yeoh)
Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada)
Searle (Cliff Curtis)
Harvey (Troy Garity)
Trey (Benedict Wong)
Pinbacker (Mark Strong)
Voice of Icarus (Chipo Chung)
Capa’s Sister (Paloma Baeza)

Credits

MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 107 minutes

A 20th Century Fox (in U.K.)/Fox Searchlight (in U.S.) release of a Fox Searchlight Pictures (U.S.)/DNA Films (U.K.) presentation, in association with U.K. Film Council, Ingenious Film Partners, of a DNA Films production, in association with Dune Entertainment, Major Studio Partners.

Director: Danny Boyle
Producer: Andrew Macdonald
Co-producer, Bernard Bellew
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Cinematography: Alwin Kuchler
Editor: Chris Gill
Music: John Murphy, Underworld
Production design: Mark Tildesley
Costume design: Suttirat Anne Larlarb
Makeup design: Mark Coulier
Sound: Tim Fraser, Tom Sayers, John Hayward Sound design: Glenn Freemantle
Visual effects: Tom Wood
Special effects supervisor: Richard Conway