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In a relatively short career of filmaking, British director Danny Boyle has certainly kept it fresh for himself. He’s done the tense thriller (Shallow Grave), the bleak indie (Trainspotting), the brainy action flick (The Beach), the ferocious horror (28 Days Later), and even the family friendly (Millions). It should come as no surprise, then, that for his latest project (which reunited him with ‘Beach’ and ‘28 Days’ screenwriter Alex Garland) Boyle has completely changed it up once again to tackle sci-fi for the first time in his career. But throughout all his genre travels, the director has always kept his films smart, thoughtful and character driven - and Sunshine is no exception.
50 years from now, the sun is dying. The Earth is feeling this in the warm of a protracted solar winter that threatens to become a full blown ice age at any moment. As a last ditch attempt to save our planet, scientists have put together a mission of astronauts and scientists to deliver a massive nuclear payload to the sun, hopefully re-igniting it. Seven years ago, the Icarus I was the first flight to attempt this, but contact with the ship was lost and the mission was never completed. Now the Icarus II takes on the job, and with the last nuclear materials on Earth all scraped together to create their massive bomb, it truly is our world’s last hope. Unfortunately, 16 months into the trip and just a scant few weeks from their destination, the Icarus II and its crew begin having….issues. When they inexplicably receive a distress beacon from Icarus I, the crew decides to track down the failed first spacecraft in order to try and launch its still floating payload and thus double their chances of success. But this decision snowballs into a series of gruesome consequences and terrible choices for the heroic crew of the Icraus II.
Borrowing more than a little from Alien, 2001, Solaris and even Event Horizon, Sunshine may at first seem to be far too derivative to be considered satisfying. But to his credit, Boyle only borrows little pieces from the various sci-fi hits that have come before, and never enough from any one source to make his film seem like an uninspired knock-off. In fact, if sci-fi is your “thing”, Sunshine is pretty darn effective and entertaining; the desolate, claustrophobic nature of the spacecraft is truly felt, as is the feeling of impending doom as things go from bad to worse. The effects are quite impressive, but never manage to overshadow the more important psychological elements. When looking at just selected ideas and moments, Sunshine is one of the best entries the sci-fi genre has had in years.
Unfortunately when considered as a whole, the film isn’t quite as strong. As is often the case in the genre, the science behind the plotline makes for a lot of mumbo-jumbo and disorienting set designs that take away from the quiet character moments Boyle achieves. Extensive re-editing of the film seems apparent, both from its twice delayed release date and at times choppy timeline. Most damaging, though, is a third act narrative conceit that feels unnecessary and ultimately changes the feel of the entire film into more of a straightforward horror movie. But none of these faults should take away from the ambitious undertaking that Boyle has skillfully crafted, and the good far outweighs in the bad in this expertly paced and relatively action packed character study.
- Jeff Latta