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26th Mar 07
It is the year 2057, the Sun is dying and mankind faces extinction. Earth’s last hope lies with the Icarus II, a spacecraft with a crew of eight men and women led by Captain Kaneda. Their mission: to deliver a nuclear device designed to reignite our fading sun.
Can you remember the last time you saw a decent outer-space adventure up on the big screen? Joss Whedon's Serenity aside, there's been a real dearth of quality sci-fi in the noughties, and yes I am including the Star Wars prequels in that sweeping statement. The serious, thinking-man's sci-fi film is an even rarer breed, with Steven Soderbergh's po-faced remake of Solaris being the last example I can think of, released a distant five years ago. Thank heavens then for Danny Boyle who with his latest film Sunshine successfully reignites the sci-fi genre for a new generation of movie-goers.
After first collaborating with Alex Garland on the movie adaptation of his bestselling backpacker novel The Beach, the two then went on to reanimate the British horror film with the zombie-laden 28 Days Later... (the sequel to which, 28 Weeks Later... opens here in May, with the duo acting as executive producers). With Sunshine they turn their attention to science fiction. We all know that in many years to come our sun will eventually burn out and die, it's a scientific fact - Garland has taken this idea as the springboard to ask the important questions; how would we react if this was to happen in our own lifetime and is there anything we could do that might prevent this and thus save mankind?
The film thrusts us straight into the lives of the eight crew members aboard the Icarus II, sixteen months into their vital mission. There's no need for any background pre-amble or to see what's happening back home on Earth - we know what is at stake here; the mission, and these eight people, is all that matters. Cooped up for weeks on end with the fate of the world in their hands you'd imagine relationships to be strained under such intense pressure and so it proves to be. As we join the spacecraft tensions are clearly running high, with things visibly strained between physicist Capa (Murphy) and Mace (Evans), the ship’s Engineer, as their differences erupt into physical violence.
Of course, this was never going to be a straightforward adventure or that would make for a very dull story. After spending a little time getting to know the crew the plot throws up its first twist. The ship intercepts a distress beacon from Icarus I, which mysteriously disappeared while undertaking the same mission seven years previously. It's up to Kaneda (Sanada) to evaluate whether it's in their best interest to deviate from their course in order to investigate the missing spacecraft, or to simply ignore the signal and continue onwards to the Sun. Inevitably things go pear-shaped and a miscalculation from whizz-kid Trey (Benedict Wong, from the criminally overlooked comedy series 15 Storeys High) sets in motion a chain of events that will put their lives - and consequently our own - in jeopardy.
Danny Boyle has always been gifted at directing actors and here again he shows his talent as we’re treated to a number of powerful scenes in which the crew discuss their mission and the implications of their actions. He understands that these people aren't indestructible superheroes, they're just human beings like you or I, and that we're all susceptible to mistakes under stressful conditions. The dialogue fizzes and sparkles and the exchange of ideas is informed and urgent. These are not banal conversations about pop culture but discussions about life and death, making sacrifices, and making the right choices for the future of our planet.
Murphy's Capa is the pivotal character here as it is he who is the resident expert on the nuclear device that they're aiming to use, yet he's not a natural leader - this is the responsibility of the authoritative Kaneda and his rather more controlling second-in-command Harvey (Troy Garity). The dynamics of the group, and the international casting of roles really plays to the film's strengths as there's no clear preconceptions of who may live and who may die that you'd normally anticipate from traditional Hollywood A-list casting.
In addition to the five actors already mentioned, the rest of the cast is rounded off by New Zealander Cliff Curtis as Medical Officer Searle, Australian Rose Byrne as Cassie the Pilot, and Michelle Yeoh as biologist Corazon. Anyone expecting the ass-kicking hijinks of Police Story 3 will be sorely disappointed as Michelle turns in a very understated performance here, a world away from the Asian martial arts movies that made her name. In fact all the actors do good work in Sunshine and there's a great camaraderie to the team despite their contrasting personalities. If I had to single out one person in particular then it would be Chris Evans whose assured portrayal of the hot-headed Mace is right on the nail and suggests a versatility previously untapped in his earlier starring roles in the likes of Cellular and The Fantastic Four.
As the film introduces a further twist in its third act to heighten the drama even further it can't help but invite comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Event Horizon, but I think the most important influence at work here is Alien and its nerve-
shattering tension. I've always been a fan of Boyle's work, even the much maligned A Life Less Ordinary, but this represents a significant step forward in his career. In these latter stages the direction serves to mirror the characters' fractured viewpoints, with Boyle employing all kinds of visual trickery during the climactic action scenes. It's a real nail-biter, with the rumbling sound design and the stirring Underworld score only adding to the atmosphere.
Visually the film is stunning. Rather than keep cutting to exterior shots of the spacecraft every few minutes, the viewpoint is predominantly kept internally, so that when we're finally taken outside for some action the vistas are genuinely awe-inspiring. There were moments as I was watching Sunshine where I became aware that I was just sitting there open-
mouthed in astonishment! It really is a technical marvel, with the visual effects, production design and costumes all combining to create a look that is impossible to take in on one sitting alone. From Corazon's oxygen garden right down to the little communication units that the crew use, this is all fabulous stuff; science fiction has never looked or felt this real for years.
Whilst it is undoubtedly a thrilling film to watch, this isn't the gung-ho action/disaster spectacle of Armageddon or The Core, but a more reasoned piece, based as much as possible on the scientific facts provided by Dr. Brian Cox, a British physicist from the Centre for European Nuclear Research who acted as the film’s scientific consultant. Obviously the film-makers have taken some liberties in order to inject some drama into the story, but at its essence is a real life crisis that our future generations will have to face and it throws up some huge issues about how we conduct our lives.
Ultimately this is a question of faith, a battle of man vs. God. Does mankind have the right to change the course of nature, or is this God's divine right? Without cynically manipulating the audience it makes you contemplate your insignificance in the bigger scheme of things and will have you thinking about its themes long after the credits. Highly recommended, you really should catch some Sunshine while you can, so grab those shades and get ready to stare into the heart of the Sun.