When I talked to Danny Boyle about SUNSHINE on July 16, 2007, I didn’t know where to start with the science fiction, the science fact, and the philosophical implications of that film. Boyle fielded all my questions with boundless enthusiasm and the sort of answers that come of having spent a lot of time pondering the metaphysical implications of human interaction with the universe. From physicist as action hero, to the hubris of mimicking the inner workings of a star, to upbringing as destiny, he waxed eloquent and not a little raffish.
With SUNSHINE, Danny Boyle once again switches film genres with a masterly touch. Having explored gritty realism with TRAINSPOTTING, social satire with SHALLOW GRAVE, whimsical fantasy with MILLIONS, and apocalyptic horror with 28 DAYS LATER, he has moved on to science fiction, albeit science fiction that also functions as a white-knuckle thriller. For all the differences to be found in Boyle’s filmography, though, he is completely consistent when it comes to the essence of those films. Boyle may be taking many roads, but they all lead to the same place, how do human beings react when up against the impossible? SUNSHINE may be his most focused effort. It’s certainly his starkest.
The impossible in SUNSHINE is the dying sun. In response, humanity has sent the Icarus 2 on a mission to kick-start it back to life. The math and the physics have all been worked out, as much as the theoretical physics can be worked out that is, with admirable precision. Alas, it is the human factor, the one thing that can’t be plotted with any certainty, that sends the mission veering off course literally and figuratively. The script, with a minimum of the sort of klunky exposition that sinks lesser writing, carefully lays out not just the physical layout of the ship and its limitations, but also the individual psyches in play. And so the audience learns, for example, that the ship’s mainframe needs to be kept at freezing temperatures or it will malfunction just as it learns that the ship’s psych officer Searle (Cliff Curtis) likes to tempt fate by looking directly into the sun as they approach it, and the mission’s physicist, Capa (Cillian Murphy), is so enraptured by the metaphysics of subatomic reactions that he speaks of it with the sort of infatuation usually reserved for first-love. The rest of the crew is just as sharply drawn, the military fly boys and gal with varying degrees of the right stuff, the navigator who doesn’t work well under pressure, and the ship’s biologist who reserves her emotional attachments for the plant life she tends.