From the first shot of Sunshine, where an apparent zoom-in on the sun turns out to be something completely different, director Danny Boyle is on his way to one of the finest science fiction films of the last 20 years. While the movie references some great sci-fi directors with its visuals (most notably Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott), it is an entity unto its own and a solid two hours of wonderment. This establishes Boyle, once and for all, as one of our great directors.
Boyle isn’t screwing around with this one. His intention seems to be the creation of the best metaphysical science-fiction movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he’s definitely made a film that belongs in the same class. Everything about the movie works: An enthralling story, well-rounded performances, excellent special effects and a tremendous score combine for one of the year’s best movies. Yeah, we’re just past the halfway mark, but I’m going to go ahead and make that statement now. This film blew my mind.
It’s the year 2057, and a spaceship called Icarus II is propelling its eight-man crew toward our dying sun. In its payload is a really big bomb meant to reignite the star and end snowball fights during summertime in Los Angeles. There was a first Icarus crew, but for reasons unknown, they failed to complete their mission and lost communication with Earth. Will the same thing that squashed the first mission befall the Icarus II? Boyle does a terrific job getting us to the answer.
Cillian Murphy (star of Boyle’s 28 Days Later) conveys both emotional frailty and heroic strength as Physicist Capa, perhaps the most valuable human life onboard because he designed the bomb. I recently slaughtered actor Chris Evans for his annoying performances in the Fantastic Four films. He blasted all of that negative energy out of my head with his work as ship engineer Ace. Evans portrays him as a well-meaning man fighting a slight strain of space madness but keeping it together long enough to make himself useful.
The set design for Sunshine is reminiscent of Alien, with the ship’s interior having much in common with Ridley Scott’s Nostromo. Boyle goes for a sort of washed-out realism, creating a future where scientists aren’t necessarily cutting corners, but they aren’t too concerned with spaceship décor.
The exterior shots of Icarus II are phenomenal. This might be the coolest onscreen spaceship since the Mother Ship at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I found myself gaping at the design every moment it occupied the screen. The most claustrophobic moments in the film actually occur outside of the spaceship during a spacewalk. Boyle puts the camera inside the spacesuits, showing Murphy’s heaving, sweating profile, as he nervously repairs damaged sun shields during the film’s most exciting sequence.
The great electronic band Underworld provides a massive score that amounts to the perfect accent on what we are seeing. Boyle’s frequent collaborator, Alex Garland, has written a screenplay that is thought-provoking and nicely constructed.
At the end of Sunshine, I was reminded of the joy and amazement I felt watching films like Close Encounters and Alien for the first time. Science-fiction films like Sunshine and last year’s The Fountain are hearkening back to the golden age of Kubrick and Spielberg, and that’s great news for those who hate garbage like Armageddon and Alien vs. Predator.
Boyle will probably never approach the genre again (he usually visits a genre once and then moves on to his next completely different opus) but, hopefully, his work here will inspire others to create sci-fi movies with a mind and heart. Sunshine sets the controls for the heart of the sun and delivers massive cinematic awards upon its arrival. In a summer with its standard share of lackluster blockbusters, Sunshine amounts to the season’s biggest surprise.