I’m really excited about a certain pop-cultural sub-genre that seems to be growing: brainy sci-fi. Movies like Children of Men (about a few individuals trying to save a childless world’s last hope) and indie film Primer (about a couple of guys who invent a time machine in their garage) and even the Tom Cruise vehicle from a few years back: Minority Report (about a cop on the run from being arrested for a crime he has not yet committed) use science fiction concepts to fuel some thought-provoking and enjoyable drama. Sunshine, from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle, follows in those footsteps by telling the story of an international crew of scientists in a space ship on the way to relight the Earth’s dying sun. In many ways, the sci-fi elements are extraneous to a “ship in a bottle” plot that could just as easily have taken place in a submarine or airplane. The basic gist is that things go wrong and people have to deal with each other while trying to tackle the problems. However, by putting the fate of the planet in the hands of these characters, the struggles take on a bigger meaning. Also, the science fiction element adds a bit more creative leeway for getting these characters into trouble. Sci-fi or not, this is still an excellent human drama tackling issues of morality, heroism, and hope.
At the centre of the story is Capa (played by Red Eye villain Cillian Murphy). He’s the scientist who developed the solar “pilot light” (which is actually a huge dish of reflective panels containing within it all the nuclear material Earth had left) that they’re to deliver to the sun. He’s generally a quiet guy, carrying the fate of the world in his hands. When he makes the call to rendez-vous with the previous ship that failed to relight the sun before them, things start to go wrong. The crew isn’t very large, but it includes an engineer (played with surprising depth of character by Chris Evans, aka the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four movies), a botanist (played by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Michelle Yeoh), a psychologist, a pilot, a comm expert, a navigator, and a captain. Each time something goes wrong (like their course corrections get miscalculated), they face a lot of very realistic consequences. Most sci-fi glosses over the minor issues, but in Sunshine, the attention-to-detail makes their problems seems very realistic. A minor course miscalculation can have a huge impact when you’re dealing with such large inter-planetary distances. Plus there’s so many factors that any real astronomer would tell you that are involved with making contact with another target in space. However, things go from bad to worse as several mishaps occur causing them to lose their oxygen reserve (among other things) To add to the drama, as the problems escalate, the costs also escalate. People have to sacrifice themselves for the mission. When saving one crew member could prevent you from saving the sun, what do you do? Sunshine is full of these kinds of tough questions along with excellent acting performances that make the audience feel what’s at stake. It’s quite gripping.
Unfortunately, the story takes a kind of odd turn halfway through. I won’t reveal too much, but the plot goes kind of “Heart of Darkness”. Some unexplained things start to happen and at that point it veers slightly away from believability. The good thing is that we move past that by the time events reach their climax, and the movie comes to a satisfying conclusion. For folks who don’t like pulpy science fiction films like Star Wars or The Matrix, but do enjoy movies featuring the intense drama of people facing disaster or struggling to solve problems under-the-gun, Sunshine will be right up your alley. For the sci-fi fans, there are no droids or mutants, but there are a few cool effects and there’s a spaciness about Sunshine, but you know that’s only window dressing on a pretty solid, well-acted story anyway. I think you’ll still be really engaged by it. (4 out of 5)