Sunshine. 2007. Directed by Danny Boyle. Screenplay by Alex Garland.
Starring Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, & Michelle Yeoh. 20th Century Fox/DNA Films/Ingenious Film Partners/MPC.
Rated 14A. 107 minutes.
Ever since first laying my eyes upon Trainspotting, I’ve more or less knelt at the altar of Danny Boyle. His films are incredible, often very emotionally compelling and with lots of interesting things happening, no matter the subject. I’m a fan of most of his films, barring a couple that weren’t my cup of tea. On the whole, he’s fantastic. Particularly I find he has two talents: working with science fiction elements (even if he’s only really done that previously with 28 Days Later…) and working with human drama. Luckily, sometimes both of these crossover into one another.
Sunshine is such a film. There’s part of this story focused on the sci-fi plot, the idea of the sun beginning to burn out and mankind trying to find some way to reignite it, lest they be relegated to a world that will perish without its heat and power. The other part is about men and women, human beings, how we see the world and how we imagine what’s outside our own. Furthermore, Boyle and writer Alex Garland look at the human relationships which ultimately the fate of mankind will rely on should we need a crew like those abord the Icarus II to go on a similar mission. In addition to the great drama and the solid science fiction, Sunshine is a visual and auditory journey which many films of its kind aren’t often able to achieve. Garland gives us the interesting writing, as Boyle works his magic with the help of cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler to craft a gorgeous piece of cinema that stands up to some of the better efforts out of the genre in these past few decades.
I’m sure a good deal of right-wing leaning moviegoers will dismiss this as leftist propaganda. However, forget those types. This is a solid science fiction story. It has echoes of other films we’ve seen before, from Event Horizon to Alien. But Sunshine is very much its own tale. Alex Garland is a solid screenwriter, having already worked with Boyle on The Beach and 28 Days Later…, so that’s at least given them chemistry. And they use it to their advantage. Garland is great at getting to the raw emotion of characters, which is evident in the other aforementioned films, as well. When Capa (Cillian Murphy) must be the only one to go through the airlock, the interim captain isn’t happy, and this brings out a load of tension for a while that plays into the idea that humans aren’t all built equipped with the capacity to handle such tension. These are the situations of human drama that make science fiction better than just a ton of wild elements. Without this basic suspense and tension brought out through the humanity of characters (they don’t even need to be human just have to have heart), sci-fi can easily fall flat. This movie is served well by the writing of Garland’s characters, their development, and the situations in which they find themselves forced along their arduous journey.
Moreover, Garland has a good writer’s mind for action. Not every writer is as good with one as the other. Although, Garland breaks that open being capable of good dialogue, interesting characters, as well as making the story feel exciting by pacing things well, and adding in the appropriate action like he does here.
A few of the sequences are spectacularly adrenaline-filled. One of my favourites is the whole airlock scene, as the interim captain ends up floating off in space and freezing, his face cracking into bits. Sad, even if he’s an asshole. Then just the entire suspense of Mace (Chris Evans) nearly freezing to death too is thick enough to cut with a knife. The first time watching, I wasn’t sure he’d make it. Nice when action scenes aren’t simply big set pieces or explosions or anything like that, but rather built on suspense and tense developments.
Not only are the characters and the plot well written, Garland’s writing is given breath by the excellent performances. Cliff Curtis, ever a solid character actor, does such a good job as the resident psychologist, whose own obsession with the sun mirrors the villain Pinbacker (Mark Strong). Love Curtis and to see him here giving his all is one reason the supporting cast is as good as the leads. Rose Byrne and Michelle Yeoh are each excellent, as well. They add a great element to counter all the testosterone brought particularly by Evans. Speaking of him, he does well with his character, meant to be a hot-headed sort that wants to kind of push his way forward rather than sit around and talk. In that sense, Evans and Murphy’s characters are juxtaposed nicely. Murphy, as always, is a powerhouse, and he gives a quiet, thoughtful performance as the lead Robert Capa. On his back and through his perspective we encounter each twist and turn throughout Icarus II’s mission. There’s always an intriguing aspect to Murphy, both physically in his looks and in the way he acts. He can become many types, most recently wowing me in BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders. Here, he plays this young doctor, but one with a head on his shoulders, a conscience, so that Capa eventually goes through this trial where he’s put to the physical test, not just having to use his brain but also his body. Lots of great performances make this one entertaining bit of science fiction adventure.
There’s a bittersweet devastation about the finale. Sunshine takes you to a place of serious science fiction and drama, then twists it all up into something amazing, dark, exciting. Once we come to discover Pinbacker, the fifth crew member left on the Icarus II in its waning moments, the whole eerie angle of the story comes to light (pun not intended; pun hilarious, though). The final half hour has plenty of sweaty tension once more. This carries you right to a beautiful yet slightly sad conclusion. Either way, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland created one hell of a sci-fi picture. From the 1990s onward there aren’t a huge amount of sci-fi movies that I consider amazing. Some, yes. Not a lot. In my humble opinion, Sunshine is an amazing film. It is beautiful, strange, dark at times. Never will you find the pace too slow, nor will you feel as if excitement is lacking. With so many good performances and the writing tightly woven into an emotion-filled, tense, and wild story, it’s hard not to enjoy. Throw this on next time you need a science fiction injection. I hope Boyle will go back to the genre someday, as he has great chops for it.