Sunshine is one of my favourite films. I remember seeing it in the cinema and being blown away by the sheer scale of the sun on a huge screen. Despite valid criticisms, I feel Sunshine is one of the best examples of a director, picking a genre they have no prior experience in and making a point-of-reference film.
Danny Boyle certainly has a chequered history in filmmaking. His huge successes seem to be the ones that speak least to his core fans. Apart from the hand grenade that was Trainspotting, commercial successes like Slumdog Millionaire and The Beach don’t hold the same appeal as Shallow Grave or A life Less Ordinary. Sunshine seems to sit in a different place from all these films and most people will struggle to remember Boyle as the director. Fans of his hard-hitting dramas won’t be drawn to the pure science fiction of sunshine anymore than the fans of his mass-appeal films. As a result, Sunshine can be entered into without any preconceptions.
Telling the story of a 2057 world where the sun is failing, Sunshine combines a cast of well-known actors just before they hit the big time. Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans are the standouts here before their comic book exploits and both vie for scene-stealing time. Each time they are both on screen the animosity between both in character is a nice parallel between their competition to act each other off the screen. It is nice to see two actors roughly the same age getting the chance to act across from each other at the beginning of their careers rather than take the Pacino, De Niro route of leaving it to the end in Heat. Keeping both under control in the early stages of the film is the ship’s captain Kaneda, played by Hiroyuki Sanada. Sanada comes across as the father figure of the film and you sense that things will break down completely if he goes, which invariably happens. These relationships are perhaps a result of Boyle making the cast live together for a time while filming as a kind of method acting.
When the predicted disaster happens on the mission it is wonderfully realised. While the whole cinematography of the film and scale is about the epic and vast nature of the sun itself, the error that causes the problem on the Icarus 2 is very human and small scale. Firstly they discover the homing beacon of the first failed Icarus mission to restart the sun. They have a round table discussion on whether or not to change course to intercept it and possible use its payload to double their chances of saving the sun. When the decision is made the course is recalculated and here is where the film breaks the simple process down to one mistake. Cappa (Murphy) makes the decision to intercept while Mace (Evans) correctly as it turns out, views it as too risky. The tension between the two from earlier in the film simmers over this decision leaving the viewer to wonder if it is a personal issue rather than professional on Mace’s part.
When the course is changed the navigation officer makes a small miscalculation and the disaster element of the film begins. Trey the navigator forgets to realign the giant heat shield at the front of the craft causing damage to the panels. Cappa and Kaneda embark on a spacewalk to fix them, ultimately leading to Kaneda’s death and the loss of the ship’s oxygen garden that was designed to get them to the sun and back. The human element of this disaster is further emphasised when Trey takes his own life as a result of the fatal error, just before Mace after a vote would have him killed to save oxygen. They are now on a one-way path and their fate is sealed.
Rather than retelling the story of Sunshine, it is worth looking at some of the flaws in the film that arrive at this point. Pinbacker, the captain from the first Icarus turns into a religious zealot who feels the earth should die. He gets onto Icarus 2 and begins behaving like the Alien, from Ridley Scott’s seminal film. But how did Pinbacker survive? The answer despite not being apparent can only be that he killed his own crew and then had enough oxygen and vegetables to survive. The Pinbacker who terrorises the Icarus crew is also stronger than the average human and almost skinless because of overexposure to the sun. While it makes an iconic and shocking villain, it doesn’t always play well to an audience. He could have spent the whole time, training and building up a tolerance to the sun, but this leaves too much for the viewer to surmise.
The other issue is the science behind restarting the sun with a nuclear bomb. If the sun is dying, then surely it has just used up all its fuel? Would nuking it do anything other than make it burn faster? In real terms, it might speed up the eventual death of the sun but generate enough heat to help the Earth in the short term. A scientist may be able to help me in the comments.
Despite these two notable issues, there is too much else going on in the film to notice. The stellar performances aside the real star is the thumping soundtrack by Underworld. There are many standouts but Adagio in D minor in its’ entirety or sped up for Kaneda’s death Part 2 are transcendent and have been used in many a trailer. They are the perfect accompaniment to the sheer scale and power of the sun. If possible see this film on a big screen as seeing the whole cinema illuminated by the sun is a cleverly used ploy that unfortunately, too many people missed out on.
What really makes this a formative film to me is the way Boyle, taking inspiration from Alien, 2001 and the original Solaris, tried and succeeded with his first effort in the Sci-Fi genre. Unfortunately, because he hadn’t prior success in the field people didn’t view it as kindly as it deserved despite it showing that a director who studies other films of the type can make an original film in his own right to add to the masterpieces.