A sci-fi fiasco that wants to be the new “2001” but instead manages to be as silly as “Armageddon” and as solemnly pretentious as “Solaris,” Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” is, to misapply the jibe that in a less enlightened age was often applied to showgirls, beautiful but (despite the title’s celestial reference) not very bright.
The locale of the action is a spaceship, the Icarus II, which in 2057 is in the sixteenth month of a voyage to the sun—not to land, of course, but to shoot a huge Manhattan-sized nuclear device into the star to “restart” it. The sun’s dying, you see, and its decline has brought a permanent dark winter to earth. The Icarus I, launched seven years earlier, had mysteriously disappeared en route, necessitating the second expedition.
The crew is an international one. Stoic Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) is accompanied by physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy), the brains behind the bomb; biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), who oversees the plants that replenish the ship’s oxygen; navigator Trey (Benedict Wong); medical officer Searle (Cliff Curtis); communications specialist Harvey (Troy Garity); pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne); and engineer Mace (Chris Evans). All seem to be suffering from the stress of the long mission, and none of them seems to like the others much. But that doesn’t much matter, because given the fact that they’re all rudimentarily characterized, we don’t either.
The plot kicks in when, just after the voyage takes them into the area around the sun that cuts off further communication with earth, a distress signal from the Icarus I is detected. A debate ensues as to whether to change course to investigate. But when the decision is taken to do so, Trey makes a navigational error in plotting the new course, forcing Kaneda and Capa (under duress) to undertake the repair of a panel shielding the ship from the sun’s heat. Further miscalculations come when the crew find the Icarus I and the docking procedure is compromised. Death and destruction follow each episode, particularly after an added passenger inexplicably shows up, and with murderous intentions. Even the slimmest chance of completing the mission will require sacrifice and luck.
One has to admire the look of “Sunshine.” Production designer Mark Tildesley and the art direction team led by David Warren have fashioned an impressive vessel, a design that melds the elegance of “2001” with the practicality of “Alien,” and the effects supervised by Tom Wood and Richard Conway make for some sumptuous exterior visuals. And everything is captured well by Alwin Kuchler’s crystalline cinematography. (There’s an especially cool moment when one of the crew members, who’s lost in space during an attempt to get back to the Icarus II from the older vessel, is frozen and explodes when he collides with a bit of debris. Since the fellow’s the most irritating person around, there’s no emotional investment to disturb the “wow” factor.)
But Alex Garland’s script lets down the behind-the-scenes crew. The characters are the merest sketches, and under Boyle’s fluid but cool direction most of the actors turn in flat performances. Murphy gets the most chance to emote, especially since he’s given a good deal of voiceover work, but apart from Evans’ typically rough Mace and Garity’s nebbishy Harvey, none of the rest add much to the party.
And the big plot turns are disastrous in more ways than one. Everything that goes wrong with the mission results from blunders made by the crew—a ploy that seems implausible in view of the fact that the ship is furnished with a computer that presumably could have been safely entrusted with the decisions they blow. (Perhaps HAL-9000 was right to point out that when mistakes occur, they’re always due to human error. Of course, maybe the crew had seen “2001” and were reluctant to hand over the running of their ship to a machine.)
The major blunder, however, isn’t the crew’s—it’s Garland’s, when he introduces a supposedly deep philosophical-theological theme in the last reel along with a new character—a Crispy Critter type that has to be photographed in blurred, jerky style to camouflage the fact that it’s a pretty poor visual creation. It would also be nice to be shown at least a bit of the situation back on earth to add some urgency to the mission; but we have to be satisfied with the merest glimpse when everything’s over.
It might also be noted that the names Garland gives to he spaceships here—Icarus I and II—seem odd. In Greek myth Icarus, of course, was the son of Daedalus who donned the wings his craftsman father had made, flew too close to the sun, and got burnt to a cinders. Naming a vessel designed to approach the sun and return to earth after such a figure would be an invitation to disaster, sort of like a 2008 presidential candidate legally changing his name to George W. Bush. But Garland probably intends the names to have significance in line with the picture’s last act. And they may be appropriate in a way he doesn’t intend, because “Sunshine” apes Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece much too closely, only to crash and burn in the end.