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.
There are tensions aplenty operating here even before the plot thickens. The Icarus 1 disappeared seven years previously with no word about whether or not it was able to complete its mission. The specifics of that mission involve a bomb the size of Manhattan strapped to the back of the spacecraft and aimed at precisely the right spot into the sun and detonated in a sort of little big bang. So, in addition to having the fate of the earth on their shoulders, there is no time for an Icarus 3, and of having a bomb of that size and capacity riding piggy-back, there is the pressure of having no guarantee that what they are planning will work. It is the situation for individual quirks to loom large and clash badly with everyone else’s quirks. Add the isolation brought on with the passage into the dead zone, where no communications with home are possible, and things quickly come to a head. Throw in a signal from the Icarus 1, and the illusion of order that kept the crew in a stable frame of mind is stripped away entirely.
Hope and despair march in lockstep as decisions are made for which there are no guidelines, and for which there may or may not be right answers. There are, however, plenty of wrong answers. The space they are traveling in, the sun they are trying to save, are wholly and implacably indifferent, while at the same time just as wholly and just as implacably deadly. There is no middle ground, no reasoning with them, and certainly no opportunity for a do-over as every decision they make reduces their options and their chance for success.
Cinematically both Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland (interview for EX MACHINA here) exploit that dichotomy to its fullest and most gripping. The ship, while roomy, is nonetheless sterile, institutional, and just as cold psychically as space itself is physically. The astronauts, whether fighting the limitations of that ship, or of space itself in one daring extra-vehicular excursion after another, are always photographed so as to be visually insignificant in the scheme of the macrocosm. As for the microcosm at work on the ship, there is a similar, and palpaply anxious, sense of insignificance, rendering the idea of these humans attempting to bend the macrocosm to their collective pitifully heroic. Or perhaps heroically pitiful. Using hard science, in addition to being fascinating in and of itself, adds to the level of tension by spelling out in detail hurdles that need overcoming and the finality of failing.
SUNSHINE operates on the level of pure entertainment even as it asks the big questions about the meaning of existence and challenges every assumption, including what constitutes a happy ending for each of the protagonists involved. Few films attempt such horizon expansion for its audience, and even fewer succeed as well as this one.