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.

The Wild Blue Yonder

Only Werner Herzog would attempt to remake 2001: A Space Odyssey as documentary. Brad Dourif plays an alien stranded on earth; Roswell and microbes are involved somehow, and NASA footage is slyly repurposed to illustrate a space mission to his home planet. Real-life mathematicians explain how to slingshot around planets, and for the exploration of Dourif’s home world, Herzog uses gorgeous imagery from an ice dive. Narrative is kept to a minimum; it’s all just an excuse to show people floating through bizarre black and blue environments–which is something I can watch for hours, especially if it’s after midnight.

The Wild Blue Yonder. Werner Herzog, 2005. ***

[tags]film, 3 stars, werner herzog, nasa, aliens, diving, space, mathematicians, science, brad dourif, blue, light, ice, jellyfish, scifi, documentary[/tags]

The Fountain

A trippy comic book about the search for eternal life. The go-to adjective for Darren Aronofsky’s first film since Requiem for a Dream is “ambitious,” but Métal Hurlant has been churning out stuff like this for decades. In three overlapping stories, Hugh Jackman is a meditating spaceman traveling to a dying star, a conquistador unearthing secrets of the Maya, and a doctor trying to save his wife (Rachel Weisz) from a brain tumor. Weisz also appears as Isabella, queen of Spain. The spiritual mumbo-jumbo never adds up to more than the old saw about death bearing the kernel of life, but the pull of the grief-stricken moments between present-tense Jackman and Weisz is difficult to resist.

The psychedelic visuals are tasty, but when it’s all said and done, I was disappointed with the way the three stories finally hook up. We have to take it on good faith that the low-rent Ken Wilber in the space bubble, the poorly lit Apocalypto outtakes, and the melodrama about the doctor and his dying wife are related in a meaningful way, and The Fountain doesn’t reward that faith very well. It’s a comic book that mistakes itself for something much more profound.

Made me want to watch Solaris again.

The Fountain. Darren Aronofsky, 2006. **

Bonus audio: In honor of Izzy, here’s Phish covering Jimi Hendrix’ Izabella, Madison Square Garden 12/30/97. Totally legal audience recording, which is to say the sound isn’t great.

[audio:Isabella – Phish.mp3]

[tags]film, 2 stars, darren aronofsky, hugh jackman, rachel weisz, space, maya, eternal life, scifi, trippy, spain, inquisition, metal hurlant, audio, phish[/tags]