Where everybody saw a film with an identity crisis, I saw a skilled and highly genre-literate space adventure for a new age, with conventions born of 50s blast-off heroism, the embittered cynicism of 70s dystopic cinema, and something altogether new: the potential for searing visual beauty in a digital age.
The story might ring false for some, and indeed, marketing worked against this film, budgeted modestly but still unable to bust-block: we have a ship named the Icarus II, headed out to reignite the sun on what is probably a suicide mission to save the Earth.
Why would we call it the Icarus II? Icarus I wasn’t bad enough? This is doubling down on negativity. Well, Sunshine is written by Alex Garland (The Beach, Dredd), and directed by equally English Danny Boyle. They feel that American names for spaceships are often too boisterous, and so in a much more sober time, when all nations are united, perhaps the Icarus II is sent out as a last gasp, rather than a patriotic date with destiny.
But it’s about expectations. We expect a film of any stripe, unless animated, to adhere to a standard of realities, and in Sunshine’s world, the ship is given a doomed name, but that doesn’t make sense to us, over here in our world. We also expect a spaceship drama to behave a certain way, and when it creeps into a more violent place, we have a word for that “veer,” or “decline.” When there is brutality in a much more forward sense, we also have a reference — “Jason X.”
This is not like Jason X, although it is more discomforting. It’s a story about the limits of humanity, the sacrifices people will make, even in the darkness where all hope is lost. The crew of the Icarus is pitted against unlikely odds, and there are plenty of casualties in accordance.
Contrast to that is the remarkable beauty in the film, where the often explosive logistics of crack-team space travel are rendered in stunning detail and sleek, shining surfaces reflecting potent colors through the hard night of space. As the story progresses, things become more intense, and the effects of the camera reflect this in motion blurring and movement.
Rounding it all out is a wonderful, international cast, with Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, and Rose Byrne among many others. Danny Boyle is a great filmmaker, with 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire managing to be both critical darlings and actually great movies. Sunshine was his tryst with hard science-fiction, and the marriage of that vision to a rarely seen genre is a thing to behold.
Nothing will survive. Not your parents, not your children. Not even the stars.