Starring: Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, Troy Garrity, Mark Strong
Director: Danny Boyle
Category: Sci-Fi / Thriller
It was sometime in late January when the teaser trailer for Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” first hit the net, and suffice it to say, I was blown away. Already leading an impressive career highlighted by his seemingly effortless ability to hopscotch between genres – from crime caper (“Trainspotting”) to horror (“28 Days Later”) to family film (“Millions”) – it wasn’t at all impractical to think that Boyle could be the one responsible for delivering this generation’s “2001: A Space Odyssey." It was, however, a major disappointment to discover that no matter how good of a movie the trailer may have suggested it would be, “Sunshine” is a tragic misfire that burns out well before it’s over.
The year is 2057 and the sun is dying. After a failed attempt at sending a rescue team up into space seven years prior, a second team boards the Icarus II tasked with accomplishing what the first crew couldn’t: reignite the massive star by shooting a giant nuke into its core. Of course, no one’s sure the plan will even work, so when they receive an SOS transmission from the Icarus I, bomb expert Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) is given two choices: divert from their original course and meet up with the ghost ship (thus giving them two bombs to fire at the sun), or stay on track and hope for the best. Capa chooses to double his chance of success, and as a result, everything that can go wrong suddenly does.
While Boyle should be admired for his bravery in tackling a different genre with each new project, it’s an absolute disaster when he tries to do so during the course of a single film. What begins as an enjoyable sci-fi drama about mankind’s last hope quickly stumbles into a nightmarish thriller with heavy resonances of the underappreciated Paul W.S. Anderson film, “Event Horizon.” It’s almost as if writer Alex Garland couldn’t figure out a better way to end the story, and so he just shuffled through his sci-fi movie collection until he found an ending he liked. I’m not accusing him of plagiarism, but the striking resemblance between the second half of both films is certainly questionable.
Unfortunately, his version is the weaker of the two. While moviegoers knew what they were getting into with Anderson’s sci-fi slasher, the sudden introduction of the badly scarred Pinbacker (Mark Strong) – the sole survivor of the original mission who sneaks onboard to terrorize the crew – is a jarring u-turn from the story at hand. Boyle doesn’t seem concerned that the script fails to explain his existence (how he survived seven years, why he didn’t burn with the rest of his crew, etc.) – he just plops him in the middle of his struggling story and dashes on. Was the original plot to save mankind not good enough?
Apparently not, because he’s willing to make all of his characters look like complete idiots in order to arrive at their final destination. Despite being constructed entirely of scientists and astronauts, not a single person on the ship (save for Chris Evans’ character, who’s made out to look like a total prick) makes a rational decision throughout the course of the film. For instance, if they’re so worried that the first bomb won’t work, then what makes them think that a second one would? It’d be like placing someone in front of a locked door, giving them two copies of the same key, and then telling them that if the first key doesn’t work, maybe the second one will. It’s also completely preposterous to assume that eight lives are worth sacrificing in order to save humanity, when not a single one needed to die for the mission to be a success. Nevertheless, Boyle quickly disposes of his talented cast (including Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne and Hiroyuki Sanada) as if they were just props on a set.
Though he desperately tries to make up for it in the final minutes by making his film mean something (Pinbacker mumbles something about being on a mission from God), there’s simply not enough time to introduce such a complex idea. It all seems like a waste considering how good the first hour of the film plays. Sure, it doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking, but it does show promise as a cool space adventure, and the visuals are absolutely breathtaking. In the end, however, “Sunshine” doesn’t just crash and burn; it blisters like the solar-obsessed Searle until there’s nothing left but a pile of dust.
Considering its poor box office performance, it’s not all surprising to discover that the single-disc release for “Sunshine” feels remarkably neutered. The audio commentary by director Danny Boyle is probably the DVD’s only highlight, while an additional commentary track (by Dr. Brian Cox from the University of Manchester) is probably about as interesting as one of his lectures. 19-minutes of deleted scenes are also included, but the movie was already too long to begin with, while a collection of web diaries serves as the closest thing to a making-of featurette.