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Sunshine   B+

Fox Searchlight Pictures / DNA Films

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Alex Garland
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong.

Review by Rob Vaux

Film is first and foremost a visual medium, designed to engage the audience's sight before all else. From the earliest days of silent pictures, theorists have debated how our minds interpret what we see onscreen, as well as the relationship between the viewer and the object being viewed. Danny Boyle's Sunshine serves as an amazing catalyst for that dynamic. He fills it with images of the eye -- both literal and symbolic -- staring in horrified wonder at vistas beyond our ken. He then contrasts those images with the very object our sight requires to function: the sun. Its light makes vision possible, and yet if we stare directly at it, we'll go blind. So too does its warmth and heat create life on Earth while simultaneously holding the raw power to destroy it all in a heartbeat.

Sunshine transforms that two-edged sword into a first-rate science-fiction thriller, grounded in the medium's most basic philosophical contexts. With his core notion establishing a unique stylistic palate, Boyle centers the remainder on the hard sci-fi tradition of the early 1970s. It takes place almost entirely aboard the Icarus, a ship sent from the Earth of 2050 to reverse a solar catastrophe, and which bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the likes of the Discovery and the Nostromo. Clean and sterile, with a few personal touches but little of the expected Star Wars grunge, it flies behind a massive shield to protect its human astronauts from the blazing light and heat in its path. Its cargo is a massive nuclear reactor -- "a bomb the size of Manhattan" intended to reignite the dying core of our nearest star. (In a reversal of the expected global warming message, the danger here is not heat but cold: unless the Icarus succeeds in its mission, the sun will go out and the Earth will become a lifeless ball of ice.)

Boyle sets his seven-man crew against an expected battery of obstacles -- malfunctions, radiation storms, psychological pressures, and the ominous realization that an earlier mission might have left a few survivors out there in the void. In the process, he tones down his usual kinetic style, which ironically increases the white-knuckle suspense and helps the film succeed quite well in the simplest of terms. Though much of the action has been cribbed from Kubrick and his ilk, Boyle gives it a distinctive voice by adhering to the film's central thematic conceit. Solar energy pummels the ship constantly -- the light alone could reduce it to ash -- which makes the crew's margin for error razor thin. Every challenge, however minor, takes on life-and-death proportions... and if they die, the whole species goes with them.

While the visual interpretation of that threat provides for some stunning imagery, it's the mental impact on the crew that delivers Sunshine's best moments. As characters, they're largely ciphers, chosen for their scientific skills and consumed by the fact that "literally nothing is more important" than succeeding at their mission. Boyle wisely casts actors with interesting faces to help lend some depth, but their personalities remain largely in the background. The film generates interest in them not from who they are, but how they respond to their situation -- a situation that grows progressively worse the closer they get to their target. Weaker crew members begin to crack, and even the strongest develop strange quirks and obsessions. Searle (Cliff Curtis) becomes fixated on the sun's light, convinced that it contains some sort of link to the divine. Ship's captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) grows detached to the point of automation, while the physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) is saddled with the film's central moral dilemma -- whether they should rescue possible survivors from the earlier expedition (and perhaps gain a "backup" bomb in the process) or ignore them in favor of finishing the job. Boyle uses their various reactions both to enhance the puzzle-box thrills of the plot, and to meditate -- quietly but rather brilliantly -- on how we as human beings fight to assert ourselves against the merciless cosmos.

At times it turns derivative, and while the climax thunders with symbolic brilliance, it also contains a whiff of the ludicrous. Add to that a few bits of dodgy science (though far less than most films of this type) and its otherwise exquisite frame becomes marred by subtle flaws. But Sunshine overcomes that with consistent intelligence and a dedication to the genre as something more than stimulus response for mouth-breathing teenagers. Though it takes its principal cues from an earlier tradition, it panders to no one in terms of its own vision. The old clichés about technology run amok and mankind's reach exceeding his grasp -- staples of those '70s influences -- are downplayed here in favor of a more literate subtext. For while Sunshine could never be mistaken for anything but cinema, its heart lies with 19th-century Romanticism: a movement that understood in its own way exactly what this movie is talking about. Percy Shelley once gazed at the terrible beauty of Mont Blanc and marveled that it still needed an insignificant human being like him to appreciate it. Sunshine boldly reimagines that concept for a new medium, cunningly disguised beneath some smarter-than-average summer entertainment.

Review published 07.17.2007.

Also read: Sunshine in His Life: Q&A with Danny Boyle.

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