It’s 2057 and the Sun is dying. A small team of astronauts and scientists are on their way to the dwindling star with a stellar bomb. Their mission: to reignite the Sun.
It’s a great idea for a piece of sci-fi, and one that could so easily become quite pompous. But with Danny Boyle in the director’s chair, Sunshine is as cool and confident as we’ve come to expect from one of Britain’s best directors. Boyle balances the sheer scale of this epic journey with a highly concentrated beam of humanity, thanks largely to the profound screenplay by frequent collaborator Alex Garland. This kind of sci-fi often supersizes its themes and special effects at the expense of any emotional resonance, which cannot be said for this 2007 space movie, whose strong characters lend a human anchor to the stratospheric adventure. The impeccable visuals, impressive score and intense storyline all collide in a cinematic big bang, creating one of the best sci-fi films of recent memory.
The visuals are heart-stoppingly beautiful, depicting outer space with an authenticity still rarely seen in the genre. That there are people capable of producing such immaculate and immersive representations of space from an east London studio on Earth is quite mind-blowing. Boyle’s flair, or in this case flare, for colourful, vibrant and druggy aesthetics make Sunshine as psychedelic as watching Boohbah with Dennis Hopper while listening to the Grateful Dead circa 1969. But think twice before watching this while tripping, because Boyle can be terrifyingly brutal, resulting in some of the most beautiful death scenes ever committed to celluloid. Alwin Küchler’s stellar cinematography is breathtaking, brightly capturing fiery walls of sunlight, orbiting shots of spaceships and glittering gold spacesuits, whose memorable design is based on Kenny from South Park. Oh my god, you killed the Sun!
Boyle masterfully combines these images with a superb score as he so often does, generally employing pop and electronic soundtracks. This is one of his finest, written by John Murphy in collaboration with Underworld, whose spacey music launches Sunshine into astronomical highs. The evocative and epic theme ‘Adagio in D Minor’ has taken on a life of its own, having since been used extensively in television, adverts and trailers, while the gentle euphoria of ‘Mercury’ and ‘Capa’s Last Transmission Home’ carries you away on a wave of psychedelic wonder.
Capa is played by the brilliant Cillian Murphy, whose astoundingly blue eyes give him a mesmerising otherworldliness, leading a talented ensemble cast that includes Chris Evans from The Avengers, Benedict Wong from 15 Storeys High and Mark Strong from everything else. Strong plays Captain Pinbacker, a walking suncream advert who, like Colonel Kurtz in Boyle’s much beloved Apocalypse Now or Roy Batty in Bladerunner, has seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Pinbacker represents the excessively quoted Nietzsche line: “When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”, but instead of an abyss it’s the Sun. The Sun as in the star, not the newspaper. The Star as in the ball of gas, not the newspaper. The ball of gas as in the one in the sky, not the newspaper.
Pinbacker also stands for the conflict at the heart of the movie between science and religion, a battle that god clearly loses. Having studied with real physicists on set, including a certain Professor Brian Cox who served as a scientific consultant, Murphy said of Sunshine: “I was agnostic before this film. Now I’m very much an atheist … For me, the film ultimately is a battle between science and religion, or science instead of fundamentalism.” This conflict must also resonate with the atheist Boyle, whose Catholic background almost led to him becoming a priest, before turning to filmmaking: “It’s basically the same job, poncing around, telling people what to think.” And he turned down a knighthood. He is amazing.
Having succeeded in just about every genre under the sun, Boyle delivers what could be his greatest film, paying loving tribute to such sci-fi giants as Alien, Silent Running and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with a heart-racing plot and heart-rending emotion lacking from Kubrick’s classic. In a cruel twist of irony, Sunshine disappointed at the box office due to the hot weather of its opening weekend. But this dazzling piece of sci-fi is not to be missed, with music, plotting and effects that remain as stunning as Cillian Murphy’s blue, blue eyes.