Brightness has never seemed as menacing as it does in "Sunshine," the nail-bitingly tense science-fiction thriller that emphasizes both the fearsome power of our friend the sun and how bereft we earthlings would be without its warming rays.
"Sunshine" is the latest film from British director Danny Boyle, whose eclectic résumé, including "Millions," "Trainspotting," and "28 Days Later," reveals a fierce disinclination to make the same film twice. Perhaps this philosophy allows Boyle to bring the energy and enthusiasm of newness to each genre he tries. For though it can't maintain its momentum all the way to the end, "Sunshine" until it stumbles is gratifyingly far from the usual space-opera stuff.
As written by novelist and previous Boyle collaborator Alex Garland, "Sunshine" has a strong pulp concept at its core. The time is half a century in the future and the sun, billions of years ahead of schedule, is dying, presenting mankind with the unpleasant threat of extinction.
Not a species to take this danger lightly, humanity unites to send up a nuclear device the size of Manhattan intended to jump-start the sun into renewed activity. The first spaceship sent on this journey has disappeared, and "Sunshine" joins successor Icarus II and its eight-member astronaut/scientist crew 16 months into its journey.
Like those multiethnic platoons beloved of Hollywood World War II movies, Icarus' crew comes from all over. Capt. Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) epitomizes the stoic samurai spirit, while pilot Cassie (Australia's Rose Byrne) is the most emotional. Trey (Benedict Wong) is the navigator, Harvey (Troy Garity) handles communications, biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) takes care of the on-site garden, and medical officer Searle (New Zealand's Cliff Curtis) gets more fascinated by the sun than is good for him.
Sixteen months in space would make anyone edgy, but getting on one another's nerves the most are two strong-minded men. Capa (the excellent Irish actor Cillian Murphy) is a sensitive physicist, the man in charge of the care and feeding of that enormous bomb. And engineer Mace (Chris Evans, the "Fantastic Four's" Human Torch) is a macho individual with a can-do-or-else attitude.
No sooner do we make everyone's acquaintance than a crisis arrives in the form of a signal from long-lost Icarus I. Should Icarus II deviate from its course to possibly save lives? Is the original Icarus' nuclear payload something the second ship could use? Whatever the crew decides, audiences can be sure that everything that can possibly go wrong will proceed to do so.
Not reflected in a synopsis is the way screenwriter Garland has made "Sunshine" a thoughtful genre film, one with philosophical concerns about God, man and morality. It's not for nothing that Icarus' talking computer echoes Hal of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Garland and Boyle also have devoted time and effort to character psychology, to making the members of the Icarus' crew into recognizable people and not Hollywood stick figures. The director even had the cast members bunk together for two weeks in cramped London student housing to give them that lived-in mind-set. "Sunshine" may be genre, but it is good to see it being treated with respect.
One draw of science fiction is always its look, and "Sunshine" certainly has a singular one. Thanks to cinematographer Alwin Kuchler, production designer Mark Tildesley and strong work in computerized imagery, both the interior of Icarus and the exterior of deep space have a strange, unnerving aura, that helps keep things unsettled. An especially wonderful touch are gold lamé space suits (designed by Suttirat Anne Larlarb) that are the very thing Elvis would have worn if astronauting had ever come his way.
All these good things enable us to buy into "Sunshine's" story for a considerable span, creating a palpable tension that underlines that no one should feel safe in the far reaches of space.
Sadly, however, this film eventually floats free of the plausibility that has been its anchor and falls victim to hoary plot devices. The conventional lies in wait to ambush even the most ambitious genre work, and though "Sunshine" is far too smartly done to be fatally wounded, it's hard not to wish it wasn't smarter still.
"Sunshine." MPAA rating: R, for violent content and language. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. In general release.