Science fiction often requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Sunshine, the latest film from director Danny Boyle and script-writer Alex Garland, depends heavily on audiences’ willingness to overlook basic plausibility and to lose themselves in this aesthetically stunning, but curiously vacant, thriller.
Fifty years from now the sun is dying. In a desperate bid to save the Earth eight astronauts have been sent into outer space on board the ominously-named Icarus II. Their mission is to safely deliver a nuclear bomb – the ‘payload’ – into the heart of the dying star in the hope of kick-starting it back in to life. Icarus II represents the world’s last chance for salvation, following the mysterious loss of the Icarus I, which attempted the same mission seven years before.
Sunshine begins as a meditation on the fragility of the planet we live on; current fears of the consequences of global warming are both subverted and intensified. Rather than seas rising and the world over-heating, Earth is suffering from a solar winter, with cities like Sydney covered in a blanket of ice. But the cause of the crisis is not man-made; the fate of the planet depends rather on forces beyond our control, perhaps even on some kind of spiritual or metaphysical god. Delivering the payload is a last attempt by man to interfere with the omnipotence of nature.
The burden is perhaps too great; sentimentality pervades the thoughts and actions of the crew members. Mace, the ship’s engineer (played by the impressive Chris Evans) is the only character who maintains a convincing steadfast duty to complete the mission, uncompromised by his emotions. When the ship picks up a signal from Icarus I, the incongruous decision to divert Icarus II from her flight path to dock with her sister-ship is made; a decision influenced by an emotional desire to learn the fate of the original crew. The crew lose their way, mentally and physically, adrift in the infinite expanse of space. Earth’s existence is threatened by the crew’s very humanity.
The flaw with this premise is that the characters, and their actions, are simply not convincing. Cillian Murphy, who starred in 28 Days Later, the previous apocalyptic film from the Boyle-Garland team, plays Capa, the nuclear physicist who’s invented the payload and is the only crew member capable of operating the device. It seems somewhat implausible that the young, extremely attractive Murphy could be the world’s pre-eminent nuclear physicist, entrusted with the task of saving mankind. Half of the crew is made up of actors too young, too attractive, to really be credible in their roles, with the exception of Michelle Yeoh and Hiroyuki Saneda, both extremely experienced Asian actors. Sunshine is a film for the O.C. generation: science fiction for the hipster crowd.
Throughout the film we are supposed to experience a torrent of emotions – the fear, hope and desperation that the crew feels on its fateful mission. But we know nothing about the characters or their history; instead they are virtually one-dimensional, often serving to move the plot along but without adding any real depth to the film. Most successful and gripping are the intense, dramatic close-ups of Capa, claustrophobic in his futuristic space suit, sweat dripping, his eyes darting, breathing heavily, terrified as he’s unleashed into outer space to try and repair the damaged Icarus II (and, of course, save the world). Though the actors are all convincing in portraying their terror and anguish, it is difficult to feel moved by their fate: a flaw that unfortunately diminishes the film’s emotional impact.
This is not to say that the film is without drama or excitement; rather it is the Icarus itself, and the burning, raging sun, that are crucial to the build-up of tension, the focal points of the real thrills and action in the film. The spaceship is stunning, the visual effects brilliant. The imposing, gleaming shields on Icarus are a character in themselves. It is easy to become immersed in the blazing sun, to understand the creeping madness that consumes the ship’s psychiatrist, played by Cliff Curtis, who is overwhelmed by its intensity, until he becomes a burnt-out husk of a person. An aural masterwork, the organic sounds made by the Icarus, and the score by Underworld add a palpable sense of fear to the drama, conveying a host of emotions that the sometimes trite dialogue never does. Despite its faults, Sunshine is exhilarating to watch on a visceral level, and will undoubtedly become a cult classic in the sci-fi canon.