Having turned down Alien: Ressurection a decade earlier, Danny Boyle finally takes command of his own space adventure thriller, collaborating once again with The Beach and 28 Days Later scribe Alex Garland. But instead of dealing with acid-blooded star beasts, our intrepid crew have a greater mission on their hands – the Sun is dying, so they have been sent to deliver a stellar bomb in the hope it gives it the kickstart required to save life on Earth. And, of course, this being the movies, not everything goes according to plan.
A great deal of this expectation comes from just how incredibly derivative it all is, with very clear references to Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dark Star. As a result, it feels very much in the same vein as the recent Doctor Who two-parter “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit”, which also drew heavily from similar source material. But it is perhaps Event Horizon that has the most distinct similarities (interesting that both Boyle and Paul Anderson’s careers seem to interesect in such a way). Regardless, when you name your space-ship Icarus II – with the original mission having gone mysteriously missing – you’re kind of asking for trouble.
However, despite all this space malarkey cliche box-ticking (Ominous mythological ship-name? Check. Inter-crew tensions and rivalries? Check. Calm lady computer voice? Check), Sunshine has an undeniably unique atmosphere. There’s a constant sense of impending doom and some truly nerve-shredding set-pieces as the success of their mission becomes compromised. For a start, space has rarely felt quite as terrifying or isolating on screen; you know full well that if anything goes tits-up, you’re well and truly stranded and, in this case, the whole human race will also be up a certain creek without a certain item of rowing equipment. As you’d expect from a film all about the Sun, it’s omnipresence and absolute power, as both giver of life and enormous dangerous fiery flame-ball, is captured magnificently by the stunning special effects work for a film of such a budget. While the precise scientifics of the film may be disputed, both the near-fautless CG and set-design go a long way to creating a sense of utter believability in the situation. And the score ain’t bad either.
The international ensemble cast is a collection of varyingly well-known faces, but no bona fide mega-stars, leaving the fates of the crew members very much hanging in the balance. This generates some genuinely emotionally powerful scenes between the characters, with Chris Evans (not that one) and Hiroyuki Sanada particularly impressive. With little time for back-story or set-up, many of the characters on board initially fit into rather obvious cookie-cutter stereotypes we’ve seen before, but as the story moves on in interesting directions, so does the character development. But come the third act, it all goes rather obtuse. It’s not that it loses the plot so much as kind of changes it, which doesn’t ruin the film per se, but it felt a little unneccessary and leaves you so busy pondering what exactly happened that you forget all the good that went before. It was a bit like The Descent in that the central concept was chilling and tense enough (lady pot-holers get trapped) that it would have made a better film if they had had the balls not to go down the silly cave creature route.
So Sunshine is not exactly perfect, but it is rare to see a solid and inventive space adventure of its ilk, and a British one at that. See it at the cinema to fully appreciate just how visually arresting it is, and even if you care not for the plot, it’s a treat for the eyes worth burning into the back of your retinas.