Even though it’s only September and a lot of the year’s potentially most interesting films have yet to be released, I feel pretty safe in saying that Danny Boyle’s Sunshine will very likely be on the top half of my Ten Best list come year’s end. Nothing this year—with the exception of Talk to Me—has made such a profound impression on me.
Not being much of a science fiction fan, my interest in seeing the film lay entirely in the fact that it was made by Danny Boyle, a filmmaker who has yet to make a film devoid of interest since he hit the international film scene with the preposterously entertaining Shallow Grave in 1994. And most of the time—Trainspotting (1996), 28 Days Later … (2002), Millions (2004)—his films have been a lot more than interesting. Plus, they’ve invariably been surprising. Although the obvious product of a single strong sensibility, the variety of subject and tone found in Boyle’s oeuvre is astonishing. From the showy, cynical entertainment of Shallow Grave to the stylized grunge of Trainspotting to the intense terror of 28 Days Later … to the gently whimsical fantasy of Millions, Boyle has constantly expanded expectations. And Sunshine is no exception. Boyle has taken the science fiction genre and made it his own.
Thinking back, I don’t exactly know what I expected from Sunshine, but it wasn’t the film I got. I never expected the film to be as dramatically intense, philosophically intriguing or emotionally resonant as it is. If pressed for a one-line summation of my feelings, I’d settle for saying it reminded me of a more exciting 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with characters I actually cared about in place of Kubrick’s ciphers. Alternatively, it’s a bit like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), but with a more traditional narrative.
As usual, Boyle takes elements from other movies and reconfigures them to create something at once familiar and strange. In a sense, he’s a very post-modern filmmaker, tapping into, deconstructing, referencing or building on a cornucopia of pop culture. I’ve seen this cause him to be dismissed as derivative in some quarters, but really the history of art in general resembles a rogues’ gallery of thievery—and like the truly great artistic brigands throughout history, he generally leaves more than he took.
There’s nothing particularly original or compelling about the setup of Sunshine. In an unspecified future, our sun is dying, so a team of scientists are traveling to it with a nuclear device the size of Manhattan with which they may be able to reignite the failing star by creating a star within the star. The specifics may be different, but as a basic idea it’s as old as science fiction: a group of scientists out to save the Earth from impending disaster. Conceptually, it might be Armageddon (1998) or The Core (2003) or even Flash Gordon (1936). Thankfully, in practice it’s none of those.
Boyle doesn’t downplay the visual elements in the least. In fact, he has created the most visually dazzling picture of the year. However, the strength of the film lies in its humanity. Sunshine boasts quite possibly the most fascinating and believably human characters of any sci-fi film I can remember, and actors the caliber of Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Troy Garrity and even Chris Evans do them complete justice. The blend of humanity—frailty, ego, idealism, guilt and the capacity for self-sacrifice—is presented in great complexity, as is the possibility of rebirth into something more than human.
The film’s distinctly metaphysical nature—aspects of which can be read as either atheistic or nonspecifically deistic, as you prefer—is unusually daring for a mainstream film and deeply haunting. Yet Sunshine never gets preachy. It’s too smart a movie for that. Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later …) have fashioned a work that never once shorts the viewer in terms of suspense or excitement. That it uses these elements to turn itself into something much more is why it’s one of the few great films of recent vintage. Rated R for violent content and language.