by Scott Mendelson
Sunshine is a movie that really denies a reason for its own existence. It knows what it wants to be, but fails to truly follow through with its intentions. Like 28 Days Later, director Danny Boyle's previous genre picture (the charming Millions was a family film of the best kind), Sunshine yearns to be a genre film pared down to its core and with plausibility as the primary mechanism of suspense or terror. But, like former film, it lacks the courage of its convictions and cops out in the most insulting way possible as its second act comes to a close. And, since the first two acts do little to differentiate this film from its ancestors, it invalidates itself by its own failure of imagination.
The plot, in brief: It is the year 2057 and the Earth is dying. No, there is not a giant asteroid or comet heading for Earth, nor has global warming remade the world, nor even has the Earth's axis stopped spinning. No, this time the culprit of our destruction is the Sun itself. The Sun has stopped burning and the Earth has been doomed by a dark ice age ever since. The Icarus II is the second vessel to attempt salvation, via dropping a nuclear bomb into the Sun. As this frazzled crew (containing, among others, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, and Chris Evans) nears completion of their mission, they come upon a signal that is apparently being sent by the first Icarus, which disappeared seven years ago. Ok, next time interstellar journeymen encounter a long lost ship, might they consider investigating this ship and its mysteries AFTER they complete their mission, on the way back home perhaps?
Sunshine basically attempts to be an art house version of the 'we must journey into space or into Earth to save Earth' picture. But the Incredible Journey-type film has been done indie-style before. If you want ponderous, pretentious art-house discussions about the nature of love and humanity, try the Solaris remake (2002). If you want the quirky-character-driven version, try the severely underrated and ridiculously entertaining The Core (2003), which imagines character-actors like Hillary Swank, Aaron Eckhart, Delroy Lindo, and Stanley Tucci as world-saving geniuses. Sunshine offers very little that is new and interesting.
The characters are cardboard, with only the goodwill for these worthy actors anchoring our emotional investment. Even 1997's Event Horizon (itself a horror remake of the original Solaris) had more fleshed out characters than this allegedly high-class sci-fi picture. Fair warning... spoiler-phobes may want to skip the next paragraph as I discuss the fatally misguided third act.
I bring up Event Horizon (an underrated and supremely terrifying theater experience) because there is a third-act development that completely kills any interest. Yes the characters are nearly thin but the production values are sharp, the dialogue is crisp, and there is a token amount of excitement during the set pieces. Alas, at about the 70-minute mark, Danny Boyle again shoots himself in the foot by deciding to end his picture in the most generic, superficial, and overwrought manner possible. Just as 28 Days Later went from grimly realistic zombie epic to a 'shirtless and buff he-man storms the castle to save the helpless females from lustful villains' dud, Sunshine goes from contemplative 'save the world from itself' fable to 'and then there were none' horror show. Heck, a character even makes a joke about that cliché halfway through the film, to no avail it seems. Furthermore, the final scenes are shot in super claustrophobic and tight-angles where we never even get a good look at the antagonist. We become geographically lost as to where our heroes are, where the villain lurks, and what still needs to be done if the original mission is to succeed. It's just a mess.
Without the courage of its convictions, Sunshine has no real reason to exist. Its generic finale negates its appeal as a clinical space epic, while it fails to terrify or intrigue as a pure science- fiction picture. Regardless of its flaws, 28 Days Later still somewhat worked as a reinvention of the long-dormant zombie picture. But Sunshine belongs to a film-type that has many, many variations, depending on your poison. For a pure pulpy horror show, go with Event Horizon (and be reminded again, why you should never, ever travel with Sam Neill). For a character-driven almost comedic approach, try The Core. For a somber, empathetic look at the looming end of the world, try Deep Impact. For a gung-ho pure action adventure variation, there's always, um... Armageddon. Without a vision and follow-through all its own, Sunshine has no reason to rise.