Fifty years in the future, a theoretical space anomaly has begun eating up the sun and a permanent winter has struck earth. The crew is on a virtual suicide mission to deliver a bomb the size of Manhattan to re-ignite the sun. Their ship is a giant parabola that acts as a shield against the powerful sun. As they near the sun, its powerful presence slowly affects the crew in interesting ways. The ships psychiatrist, for example, becomes obsessed with observing it from the observation deck at increasingly dangerous levels.
Sunshine is a visually arresting film in the tradition of 2001, Solaris and even Alien. The film pays homage to all of these movies with its sleek, vacuum-packed spaceship interiors and claustrophobic interactions between crew members. I especially appreciated the soothing Hal-like voice of the ship’s computer systems, with its unrelenting logic and inconvenient fail-safes.
The cast is stellar. Some of my favorite actors are casted, including Cillian Murphy and Chris Curtis. And remarkably there are also three Asians casted, Hiroyuki Sanada who was in The Last Samurai, Benedict Wong who is in the TV series Heroes, and the thinking woman’s action star Michelle Yeoh who has been in everything. But most compelling is the sun itself, the true star of the film.
The film addresses many themes, such as our faith in science, the inevitable religiosity of the sun, weighing the sacrifice of the few for the survival of humankind, hope and hopelessness. Unfortunately, these grand notions become cheapened somewhat in the last 20 minutes, as the film devolves into something akin to a slasher film. I didn’t mind it that much but it could have been so much more powerful to maintain the focus on the crew and their relationships to each other, the mission and the sun.
Apparently the writers considered which countries would have space programs 50 years from now and decided it would be the US and China primarily. Yet the leader of the mission is Japanese. And the lead character is Australian. I found it interesting what kind of crew the writers thought was essential to carry out the mission. They include:
• The Captain, coolly played by Hiroyuki Sanada, keeps the crew calm.
• The Communications officer is the second in command, but exhibits a panicky cowardice in contrast to the captain.
• The Pilot is played by Rose Byrne.
• The Engineer is the loose cannon and the most pragmatic.
• The Psychiatrist/Doctor, played by Chris Curtis, makes sure everyone is psychologically able to function, even as he himself flirts with obsession.
• The Navigator makes a fatal calculation error that starts a chain of events leading to tragedy.
• The Physicist is responsible for making sure the payload reaches its target, the core of the sun.
• The Biologist, played by Michelle Yeoh, is responsible for maintaining a green house that produces the oxygen and water for survival, as well as the vegetables for sustenance.
That’s seven crewmembers plus the captain. All are natural scientists and technicians. I’m not sure what specialization the captain represents, but maybe he was the social scientist, the one trained to keep the group cohesive and focused. Or maybe his training is in philosophy, or maybe risk-management and conflict resolution. He sounds like a Peace Studies graduate.
Except for the eighth crewmember, it’s almost like the characters in The Seven Samurai, seven specialists led by a level-headed leader, recruited by the village Earth to save them from an imminent danger. It’s an ensemble performance that works beautifully because of the strong performances spurred on perhaps by the director Danny Boyle. Boyle put the actors through months of training to simulate space travel and living in close quarters, even sequestering the cast in an isolated dormitory before filming.
The result is an unblinking look at how fragile we are in the face of the sun.