Danny Boyle sends a group of astronauts–Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, and Rose Byrne among them–on a mission to deliver a giant nuke in order to restart our dying star and save mankind. Confined to a ship that instantly brings to mind 2001‘s Discovery, they send video greetings to their families and tend to Silent Running oxygen gardens. But no matter how many millions of miles from home, when a distress signal arrives, it’s clear that we’re in some very familiar territory: lethal space walks, ticking countdowns, mysterious ghost ships, malfunctioning life support systems, a computer with a melodious voice denying urgent requests, tripped-out deep-space epiphanies. Nothing new under the sun.
At a post-screening Q&A at Tribeca Cinemas this week, Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) made it clear that he is very much hip to the sci-fi classics. Like the crew of the Ikarus II hiding out behind their giant space umbrella, Sunshine labors in the shadow of Kubrick’s 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris — and the books by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanislaw Lem they were based on — with some additional nods to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Perhaps it’s not even possible to send people into space without referring to these touchstone films, and yet, the question remains: why has it been decades since anybody managed to put a brand-new spin on the genre? Fox Searchlight respectfully asks critics to keep mum about the third-act revelations and reversals that work hard to keep Sunshine surprising, but really, there’s no need: if you’ve watched any sci-fi at all, you have seen it before.
Which is not to say Sunshine isn’t a handsomely crafted, engaging, even nerve-wrecking space adventure. The CGI sun, seen through the filtered glass of the ship’s observation deck or shooting over the edge of the heat shield, is a blast of glorious, almost supernatural light. Boyle also does an outstanding job at vividly rendering the astronauts’ extreme vulnerability to the elements. The burning heat of the stars, the razor cold of space, everything is orders of magnitude more threatening than on Earth. The plant life on board the ship in particular becomes more precious than ever. Surely, this heightened state of perception is one of the reasons we go to the movies in the first place. So what if Kubrick already said it all? Set the controls for the heart of the sun anyway. Sunshine will open in the US on July 20.
Sunshine. Danny Boyle, 2007. ***
Bonus videos: Pink Floyd at Pompeii, the trailer, and–just because he happened to turn up in the search–Bill Withers.