With the premise of a motley group of astronauts on a desperate mission to save the entire human race, Sunshine could have easily been another idiotic Armageddon clone. Thankfully, director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later) elevates the material with great performances and special effects. But the film still has its share of problems, including a third-act plot twist that brings things to a screeching halt. Sunshine seems to be aiming to be this generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but instead only succeeds in hitting the 2010 mark.
Certainly, the destination of this particular mission is enough to set it apart from the herd. Whereas most space disaster films send its characters out into the lonely coldness of space where no one can hear them scream, Sunshine instead plunges its crew into the unimaginable heat and light of the sun. It’s not something we’ve really seen before in movies, and the sun’s ubiquitous presence inspires plenty of bright, dazzling special effects.
In the near future (one assumes, given the advanced tech on display), an astronaut named Capa (Cillian Murphy) narrates that our sun is dying. He’s part of an eight-person crew aboard the Icarus, a spacecraft on a multi-year journey to the sun. Their mission is to detonate a massive bomb made up of all available fissile material on earth, in an attempt to restart the sun.
The notion that a man-made object could generate enough energy to affect a star 1.3 million times the size of the earth is not quite as ridiculous as it sounds. According to the commentary track by the film’s scientific advisor, the idea is that a large blob of dark matter called a “Q-ball” is interfering with the sun’s fusion reactions. The bomb is meant to break up the particle, allowing those processes to return to normal. It’s still not a particularly sound idea from a scientific perspective, but it’s an interesting one. Too bad it’s never even hinted at in the actual film.
Just as the Icarus crosses the orbit of Mercury, they suddenly pick up a distress signal from another ship. You see, Icarus is actually the Icarus 2, and the distress call is from Icarus 1, the ship that first attempted this mission seven years ago, and disappeared without a trace.
The crew entertains the notion of investigating what happened to the other ship, which is a ridiculous detour that would never in a million years happen in real life, given the survival of all mankind is on the line. But eventually, they rationalize a reason to divert course and go check it out. And that decision sets in motion a chain reaction of accidents and calamities that makes Apollo 13 look like a leisurely hot air balloon ride.
When they finally reach Icarus 1, things go from bad to worse. I won’t reveal exactly what happens in the final act (even though the Spoiler Statute of Limitations has surely run out on a six year old film), except to say that a new character appears, and suddenly we’re stuck watching the final twenty minutes of Event Horizon.
Sunshine has a lot going for it, but enjoying this film requires massive suspension of disbelief. Which begins with accepting that a crucial mission to the sun would be named “Icarus”, after the figure from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun and ended up plummeting to his death. “Icarus 2” is a bit like naming your cruise liner “Titanic 2” or your hot air balloon “Hindenburg 2”. This is about the least subtle cinematic allusion to Greek mythology ever, or at least it was, until Christopher Nolan named a maze-building character “Ariadne”.
Or perhaps a better name for the ship would have been the U.S.S. Murphy’s Law, because everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong. Obviously, a mission where everything happens according to plan would be a bore, and there are reasonable explanations for most of the emergencies the characters face, and yet, I can’t help but feel like I’m watching the most incompetent crew in the history of space exploration. I began to wonder if the sun really needed saving at all, or if these eight people were simply sent 93 million miles away so they could do the least amount of harm to anyone else.
Couldn’t there have been more external forces at play here? Space debris, micro black holes, equipment failures, a psychotic AI, anything else to put the characters in danger besides their own screw-ups? They don’t come off quite as ill-prepared as the crew of the Prometheus, but they’re down there.
Also, at one point, they realize they have limited oxygen reserves, and so they mull over the possibility of letting some crew members die so the rest can survive long enough to complete the mission. This would make sense in a small, cramped, Apollo-type space capsule. But the Icarus is a ship containing huge, cavernous open areas. It’s absurd to think two or three people could have an impact on the atmosphere of a ship with rooms the size of football fields, all apparently filled with breathable air.
And then, of course, there’s that plot twist. Many complained that it came out of nowhere, but in fact, the twist is baked into the script; Great care is taken to set it up early on, and without it, it would be a totally different movie.
The problem with the twist is not that it comes out of left field, but rather, that everything in the story is leading up to it, and once it happens, there’s nowhere for the movie to go. And yet we’re left watching people scramble around in a panic for twenty minutes before we finally get to the inevitable ending.
Everyone in the cast gives strong performances, but the standout here is Chris Evans. That may not seem like an outlandish statement these days, now that Evans has won genre fans over with his portrayal of Captain America. But at the time Sunshine came out, his performance was kind of a revelation. After years of playing the annoying jock stereotype and ruining every movie he was in (okay, mostly just the Fantastic Four movies), he comes off as the only person in this thing with even a shred of competence.
It’s a testament to the director’s abilities that you don’t immediately notice how preposterous and derivative this movie really is. It’s overflowing with clichés; after all, it’s really just another sci-fi take on the Ghost Ship trope, like its predecessors 2010, Alien, Mission to Mars, and Event Horizon before it. It’s a rare film that succeeds in spite of its script, not because of it. Sunshine works mainly as a character study about a group of people coming to terms with being on a suicide mission. Those wanting realism and scientific accuracy should look elsewhere.