Less than stellar

Or maybe it’s a whole new take on <i>Starlight Express</i>?

Or maybe it’s a whole new take on Starlight Express?

Rated 3.0

It begins with a solemn voice-over narration: “Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction.” Oh, here we go. Again with the facing extinction. What is it with these movies?

Well, in the case of Sunshine, it’s a steady diet of other movies. Director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland, who together raised the zombie flick from the dead with 28 Days Later, now rocket headlong into to the quasi-arty science-fiction thriller, with pretty, precious and willfully predictable results. Their taste could be called omnivorous—recognizable seasonings vary from the exquisite (2001, Solaris) to the savory (Alien) to the emptily caloric (Event Horizon, Armageddon)—and the feast they offer could be called delicious. Just be ready for the food-coma stupor of dulled imagination.

So, OK, the sun’s prematurely burning out, the Earth’s sinking into fatal hypothermia, and a team of eight brave astronauts are off to do something about it. It’s strenuous work, and we’re meant to worry for them. Character development aside (because that’s where Garland and Boyle prefer it), these civilization savers are traveling sunward in a ship called Icarus, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Worse, it’s the Icarus II; this vessel’s predecessor was lost—very reasonably presumed to have perished—on a similar mission several years ago.

The mission, however mythically ominous, actually is quite straightforward: Fly up real close, park, jump-start the great golden giver of life with the mother of all nuclear projectiles, go home. The bomb itself, we’re told, is roughly the size of Manhattan Island. Oh, like that’s a lot? The sun is 865,000 miles in diameter, for crying out loud. You could fit about a million Earths into it. What’s this little firecracker gonna do? OK, fine, suspension of disbelief and all, but Boyle should know that the price of genre authenticity, especially in this genre, is nitpicking geekery. More to the point, though, if the movie really wants to ask a philosophical question, how about this one: Is any species that’s capable of making such an efficiently annihilative weapon really worth saving?

Anyway, on the way to destiny some issues come up. Space madness seems inevitable, its sources as various as beatific heliolatry and bad math: One crew member gets a little too rah rah for Ra on the observation deck, another screws up a crucial calculation and becomes suicidal. Stuff gets fried and falls apart. It’s all precipitated by the crew having good reason to wonder whether the other Icarus might still be out there—its crew, and maybe more importantly, its payload, still intact. (Two big bombs, after all, are better than one.) Would a diversion and attempted rendezvous be prudent?

That decision falls to the ship’s prodigious young physicist, played by Cillian Murphy. Yep, more suspended disbelief: The science of that casting doesn’t really check out, either. But Murphy is what’s best about this movie, and not just because his otherworldly blue eyes evoke that freaky, awestruck yet all-knowing fetus from 2001. His is a necessarily humanizing performance in a film whose other actors (ship’s captain Hiroyuki Sanada, pilot Rose Byrne, shrink Cliff Curtis, engineer Chris Evans, oxygen-garden groundskeeper Michelle Yeoh, among others) have little to do, or offer, and just about the only natural-seeming dialogue is spoken by the onboard computer—because it at least is supposed to seem machine-like. (Waxing poetic is not advised for Garland, as it yields such lines as “ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust.”)

As the plot thickens, Boyle dwells on his team’s other, non-literary, talents: the lovely, luminous, Apple-computer-conference-esque production design by Mark Tildesley; the sufficient soundtrack electronica by Underworld; the director’s own penchant for ratcheting action up with shaky shots, subliminal flash frames, hurried cutting, human sacrifice.

At first it’s a wonderfully unsettling survey, contrasting the frozen void of infinite space with the fierce, incinerating violence of a stellar furnace—each so eerily beautiful, so calmly brutal. And it’s appropriately, cinematically dreamlike, akin to the low-grade hallucinations that sometimes stir under your eyelids after too much sunbathing.

But before long Boyle and Garland have all but abandoned their half-assed climate-change allegory (no great loss), and stopped picking at the sci-fi homage buffet. Needing closure, apparently, they lapse into familiar horror-flick shock tactics. It seems cheap, and dodgy, and would pass for immediate gratification were it not so tediously protracted and unrewarding. It’s unfortunate, but true, what they say: Stare at it too long and you’ll really hurt yourself.