An irony of the space movie subgenre is that although few are made these days, the precedent has been so powerfully and influentially set by a mighty few that the few new entries still have difficulty carving a niche. The latest, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, is so overtly a melange of prior movies that for once I couldn’t escape that hackneyed critical fallback of “This Movie meets That Movie”: Sunshine is “Solaris meets Alien meets The Fountain”. Or I could more facetiously simplify it as “Event Horizon, only good.”
The similarities to Paul W.S. Anderson’s forgettable space horror are disquieting, right down to the final threat, but the tone and ambiguity of Sunshine are sufficiently divergent that we shouldn’t be ringing the plagiarism bells. We enter the story partway through an international mission to re-ignite the sun, which fifty years from now has inexplicably begun to fail. Physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy, reuniting with Boyle after 28 Days Later) has designed a truly massive nuclear device to do the job that is being pushed to the sun by a ship manned by Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, and Benedict Wong. This is the majority of the cast, but when the ship receives a distress call from its predecessor, presumed destroyed, their situation begins to change…
I don’t want to give away any more than that, but a key twist gives way to a significantly different third act, wherein Sunshine morphs from a claustrophobic science thriller into a quite disturbing horror film, but the transition is surprisingly smooth and logical, aided by Boyle’s hugely accomplished direction. His career is beginning to rival Ang Lee’s in its diversity and consistent quality, as Boyle’s first space film shows others how it’s done, which is all the more remarkable given its moderate budget. While Sunshine is consistently gripping, the third act features audacious camerawork that cleverly keeps the final threat largely unseen, although we see enough to find it truly scary. Then for the final minutes, the film shifts again into a transcendent, beautiful denouement that, although inexplicable to me at the time, was stunning to watch.
Boyle is aided by a strong cast, particularly Byrne, giving her character resilience while never shying away from the painful emotions the situation would unleash, and Evans, a world away from Johnny Storm here as the commanding but sympathetic engineer whose fate is wrenching to watch. The others, apart from Murphy, aren’t as well served, and Yeoh and Sanada are particularly wasted. But a ship needs a crew and 2-hour films can’t always serve them all. It would have helped if writer Alex Garland had avoided the occasional cliché, such as the newly promoted leader giving irrational orders out of fear, but this is largely an intelligent and understated script. I certainly felt more wonder at this elegant $50 million story than the overstuffed $200+ million odysseys offered elsewhere this year.