After dabbling for a decade or so in stories with at least a minimal grounding in human reality, Danny Boyle appears to have found the milieu that suits him best: When it’s the end of the world as we know it, he feels fine.
With 1994’s Shallow Grave and the 1996 art-house sensation Trainspotting, Boyle commanded attention by the sheer force of style he brought to nerve-wracking situations. Yet he has also shown a fascination with the moral choices people make when they’re ripped free from everyday life (2000’s The Beach and 2004’s Millions). Then, with his rage-zombie horror hit, 28 Days Later (2002), Boyle was able to join his visual, visceral chops and his fascination with situational morality in an ideal setting. Where better than an apocalypse to place characters contemplating unfamiliar, uncomfortable choices, and make it bitchin’ cool in the process?
In collaboration with his 28 Days Later writer Alex Garland, Boyle offers up another bleak near-future scenario in Sunshine: The sun is on the verge of burning out, taking humanity along with it. After a failed attempt by a team of astronauts in the Icarus to kick-start the sun’s fission furnace with a big-time nuke, a second mission—Icarus II—takes flight seven years later. A physicist named Capa (Cillian Murphy) is in charge of the big bomb, while the rest of the crew—including no-nonsense engineer Mace (Fantastic Four’s Human Torch, Chris Evans) and botanist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh)—tries to keep everyone from frying or running out of oxygen as they fly several million miles away from the earth. They should even be able to complete their mission and return home to reap the benefits—unless something unexpected happens, like picking up a distress beacon from the presumed-lost first Icarus.
Sunshine inevitably invites comparison to plenty of other deep-space creep-outs. The diverted mission, female computer and laconic, single-named crew recall the original Alien; the perilous space-walks and sense of awestruck wonder echo 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s even hard to shake the whiff of the more recent stinker The Core, in which an intrepid team of scientists drill through the earth with a big bomb to keep the planet spinning. So steeped is the film in its genre predecessors that it’s impossible not to burst out laughing when Mace wryly suggests during inspection of the derelict Icarus that they all split up so they can “get picked off one at a time by aliens.”
But when Boyle dives into his set pieces, he delivers tension that makes it easy to forget comparisons. A navigational blunder forces Capa and the Icarus II’s captain (Hiroyuki Sanada) to go outside the ship to repair the heat shield, leading to a jaw-clenching race against time. A malfunction during the crew’s visit to the Icarus necessitates a harrowing launch by three crewmen across deep space. As was true in Alien, the characters aren’t given a ton of personality, yet the craft with which the high-risk moments are directed makes their fate matter anyway.
And occasionally, they even have to make impossible decisions. Sunshine certainly isn’t primarily about those decisions—Garland has constructed a fairly straightforward plot machine—yet they sneak in just enough to remain intriguing. When oxygen reserves run low, the surviving crew members contemplate killing one (or more) of their own so that those who remain will be able to complete the mission. It’s a small moment—and one of many surprising showcases for Evans’ burgeoning talent—but it pulls at one of the threads Boyle now seems fascinated with exploring: How do you judge an action when the fate of the world rests in the balance?
Not surprisingly, Boyle pulls at several of his other favorite, less appealing threads. He offers plenty of moments not for the squeamish, including fairly detailed examinations of what happens to a human body when it is either a) left spinning in cold space or b) rendered akin to beef jerky by solar exposure. His trouble with third acts raises its head again, this time when an external menace threatens to turn things into an even more obvious re-tread of Alien. And it’s an awkward, unnecessary inclusion when religious zealotry becomes a motivation for some extreme actions.
It’s messy and uneven, but as pure genre filmmaking it generally works. Boyle’s too talented to blow a concept like Sunshine—not when it would imperil his next chance to put a jolt into imminent extinction.