Keep Your Eyes on Danny Boyle’s Mind-Frying Sunshine

By Robert Silva

Sunshine isn’t just everything a sci-fi movie should be. It’s every sci-fi movie.


In Sunshine, a crew of scientists embark on a mission to reignite the fading sun with a giant nuclear bomb. The premise might be Z-grade silly, if not for the polymorphous script by Alex Garland, who went on to wow existential sci-fi fans with the A.I. intrigue of Ex Machina and the mix-and-match body horror of Annihilation. Garland's stealthy turns between action, horror and sci-fi, keep viewers on guard.

Sunshine is the ultimate sci-fi movie in a very specific sense: It’s every sci-fi movie.

Directed with the hyperkinetic visual flair by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), Sunshine doesn’t just take cues from its predecessors, it adopts whole plotlines from Alien (a ghost spaceship) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (an ill-fated repair). Yet it also looks beyond the canon, borrowing from the 1997 head-scratcher Event Horizon — in which astronauts literally go to hell — and the winky sci-fi parody Dark Star. In the first minute of Sunshine, director Danny Boyle forces the viewer to stare directly into the sun, challenging us from the outset. And while Sunshine can at times resembles a screenwriter’s batch of trippy ideas searching for dramatic structure, it achieves cohesis as a fan’s note to everything we love about voyages into the abyss of space.

What could go wrong? Nearly everything. The crew of Icarus II (Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, et. al.) receive a distress signal from its sister ship, which vanished on the same mission. Should they investigate or stay on course? While the resident physicist (Cillian Murphy) does some complicated Pascalian arithmetic — given the infinite reward of saving the Earth, two payloads of bombs are surely better than one — it turns out a math error could doom all of humanity. Then a crucial ship’s component fails. This requires a risky repair. Then the oxygen garden goes up in flames. This is now a suicide mission. And there’s more.

One of the heady delights of Sunshine is that it’s clear as mud where it’s going. There’s an onboard computer that may or may not go insane. There’s a virtual reality simulator, used as therapy for the scientists, that could be crucial to the plot. Plot hints and red herrings abound. Each of the astronauts is given equivalent focus, so it’s genuinely surprising when one of them slips into the beyond — frozen, broken into pieces, and then burned alive.

By the third act, an entity enters who may be a vengeful and boil-covered spirit, or simply a casualty of quantum physics. It’s never really explained, which is confusing — and also acutely effective in generating an atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia. What type of movie are we in?

Sunshine might throw genre fans for a loop, but others will admire the grandeur of its schizophrenic inspirations, even if, like Icarus himself, the movie ends up flying too close to the sun. A more conventional movie would have provided a more satisfying conclusion, perhaps, but Sunshine is a journey. Half the fun and the fear is getting there.