"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
Director Danny Boyle has admitted as much while promoting Sunshine, a science-fiction film that reunites the team behind 28 Days Later. While Sunshine recalls Alien, Solaris, and 2001—and closely resembles Event Horizon—Boyle also rightly claims that his reteaming with screenwriter Alex Garland and star Cillian Murphy enters new territory by sending man straight to the sun. And there's the rub. As tempting as it is to write off Sunshine, the tour guides and destination make the trip a worthwhile diversion.
Murphy plays physicist Robert Capa, part of the crew of an Earth mission to re-ignite the dying sun. With Earth suffering a solar winter and one previous mission already deemed a failure, the stakes are ultimate: mankind faces extinction. There's intrigue amongst the crew of the Icarus II (Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, and Michelle Yeoh), and further mystery when they encounter the dead-in-space Icarus I. Ominously, select crew members begin to become addicted to sunshine, filtered into an observation deck (and they ain't wearing their SPF-1000...).
Sunshine's science fiction has strong elements of horror and existential drama, leavened by surgically applied humor. One crew member jokes to another, "Afraid we might get picked off by aliens one by one?", which may be less a joke than it is foreshadowing (as per the press notes: "the filmmakers respectfully ask that [I] not reveal too much about the surprises in the film"). Boyle fervently contrasts cold, dark space with the searing lifeforce and deadly threat of the sun; his ever-ingenious cinematic bag of tricks runs the gamut from technically convincing production design to ghost-story creep-outs.
More interesting than the scares are the film's metaphysical flourishes and theological questions. The crew gets an ethereal warning from the void: "All our science. All our hopes, our dreams, are foolish! In the face of this, we are dust, nothing more. Unto this dust, we return. When he chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God." Is the mission to save humanity the ultimate act of hubris? The lifegiving sun can be taken as the Creator, and reaching out to touch it the science-fiction version of "The Creation of Adam." By picture's end, Boyle has led us into a fantastic dreamscape bordering on nightmare.
As a beautiful pictorial of universal themes, Sunshine excels, but as narrative and intellectual exercise, the film goes unhinged in the final act. Boyle marshals a tight ensemble, but isn't much interested in going beyond their actions to round out character; he delivers unsettling scares, but ultimately reveals he has nothing to say about the notions he and Garland raise. The visual poetry will make you feel you've been on a journey yourself; the thematic facileness will make you wonder where you've arrived. As if in response, the wild disorientation predictably resolves in the definitive answer to a plot question better left ambiguous. There is nothing new under the sun, but at least the talented Boyle still brings the heat.
[For Groucho's interview with Danny Boyle, click here.]