Like a collapsing star, “Sunshine” initially burns brightly but finally implodes into a dramatic black hole. Augmented by an ace digital soundtrack, the high-concept sci-fier, about scientists sent to reignite the dying sun, delivers some atmospheric drama that’s gripping for two-thirds of the voyage. But like helmer Danny Boyle’s other collaborations with writer Alex Garland (“The Beach,” “28 Days Later”), it’s finally an odyssey to no-ideas-ville that ends up relying on technical oomph. Sans marquee names, pic will depend on savvy marketing and positive reviews to click with a young demographic, with good rather than dazzling business likely.
Already screened at several German fantasy fests in mid- to late March, pic goes out rapidly across much of the globe starting April 5. In the U.S., Fox Searchlight is holding back release until Sept. 14.
Film surfs any number of space movies in which a journey becomes a metaphor for travel into the human subconscious. At the arty end of the spectrum, “Solaris” and “2001” are clear inspirations; more mainstream parallels include “Event Horizon,” “Alien” and the much-fraught “Supernova.”
But the closest parallel doesn’t even appear on Boyle and Garland’s published viewing list — Peter Hyams’ “2010,” right down to its terrestrial coda. Substitute the sun for Jupiter and, in structure and theme, as well as on-board character drama, “Sunshine” is almost a remake.
Time is 2057, seven years after the spacecraft Icarus and its crew were lost on a previous mission to kickstart the fading sun. As pic opens, a replacement ship carrying a massive nuclear device is 16 months into its voyage and only 36 million miles from its target. Per the opening v.o. by mission physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy, “28 Days Later”), who clearly studied script pitching sessions, “Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb, my bomb. Welcome to Icarus II.”
In a nod to the probable reality of future power-sharing (as well as international box office), almost half the crew is of Asian descent, including Captain Kaneda (Japan’s Hiroyuki Sanada, “The Twilight Samurai”), biologist Corazon (Malaysia’s Michelle Yeoh) and navigator Trey (British-Chinese thesp Benedict Wong). As the story opens, Trey is cooking stir-fried noodles in the kitchen and everyone is eating with chopsticks.
On the occidental side, apart from Capa, there’s pilot Cassie (Aussie actress Rose Byrne), med officer Searle (Kiwi Cliff Curtis) and two Yanks, communications officer Harvey (Troy Garity) and engineer Mace (Chris Evans).
As Icarus II enters the “dead zone,” in which all communication with Earth will end, most of the initial character interplay is between the combustible Mace and maverick Capa, with a smidgen of sexual chemistry between the latter and Cassie. With scientific jargon centering on the sun’s power, and some impressive visual effects for both the seething orb and a virtual-reality cure chamber, the script develops an atmosphere of possible realism, in a movie kind of way, avoiding the grunge beloved of ’90s sci-fiers.
Plot picks up in the third reel as the crew detects a faint signal from the original Icarus and has to decide whether to check it out. It’s the first of several decisions that are dealt with in a practical, scientific way; later ones, involving sacrifice for the greater good, come down to a sheer numbers game that generates its own drama when applied to human lives.
When Trey bungles the course adjustment, a series of events are set in motion that have escalating consequences. First big set piece, as Capa and Kaneda exit the ship to repair sun shields, is handled with a good balance between f/x and the human drama. Ditto the later boarding of the Icarus — a dust-covered ghost ship that may hold a secret — and the nail-biting transfer back to Icarus II.
It’s during the final act that Garland’s science-based approach starts to go haywire, as he struggles for a conclusion to his Big Idea and can only come up with a fuzzy religioso message (rather like “2010”) capped by an increasingly visceral, killer-on-the-loose finale. Latter becomes progressively more ridiculous after the script’s earlier, careful calibrations.
Still, for the first hour or so “Sunshine” is gripping enough with its solid performances, good-looking CGI, underlying tension and resonant, iron-hard digital soundtrack. Pic could have done more, however, to emphasize the claustrophobia of eight humans attached to a nuclear bomb that’s (literally) the size of Manhattan.
Though it takes a while to sort out who’s who among the Westerners, and only Yeoh gets much of a part among the Asians, Boyle generally directs fluidly, making the most of p.d. Mark Tildesley’s sensible, not-too-futuristic sets, lensed with cool reserve by Alwin Kuchler. (Whole pic was shot in East London’s 3 Mills Studios.)
Performances blend OK, with Murphy making a charismatic lead and Byrne making the most of a smaller role. John Murphy’s techno-rock music refreshingly avoids the usual outer-space cliches.