July 19, 2007

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Sunshine (R)
A band of astronauts on a mission to the sun are all that stands between humanity and icy extinction in Sunshine, a deliciously strange and creepy sci-fi adventure.

Capa (Cillian Murphy) is the physicist on a ship traveling for months toward our sun, which is dying and is already weak enough to leave the earth snowy and frozen. Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) is the captain of the Icarus 2, the ship making the voyage. Other members of the crew include the sun-addicted Searle (Cliff Curtis), the garden-tending Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), second-in-command Harvey (Troy Garity), the generally handy Ace (Chris Evans) and Cassie (Rose Byrne). The Icarus 2 carries a payload that is essentially a giant nuclear bomb. Once released into the sun, so the thinking goes, the explosion of the payload will cause a reaction that will reignite the sun, creating a new star out of the old one, as Capa explains.

Though not exactly the Enterprise, the Icarus 2 does have many nifty features to help it complete its mission. The sun-facing part of the ship is a giant shield from which the ship gets its solar power and which protects the ship from the increasingly hot temperatures as it nears the sun. The occupants breath air created by an on ship garden full of green plants and trees. That garden also provides food — we see Corazon pull out farmers’ market worthy carrots — and should allow the Icarus 2 to get safely to the sun and back home.

Should.

As the Icarus 2 approaches Mercury and loses its ability to communicate with earth, things start to go wrong. The crew hears the distress beacon of the first Icarus and decides to attempt to find and board the ship, which Capa argues will offer them an extra payload and an extra chance at creating the needed explosion. That decision requires the ship to change course, a move that starts a string of fatal events. As the ship gets closer to the first Icarus, we begin to suspect that the original ship’s failure had a more sinister cause that suspected. The crew members begin to suffer a kind of deep space madness — from Harvey’s insecurities to Searle’s seemingly suicidal need to experience the brightness of the sun.

Like cool, creamy ice cream on a hot day, Sunshine is the perfect dark, adult sci-fi with which to cleanse the palate during a popcorn-movie-heavy summer. The movie reminds me of the better parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the way it really gives you a feel of the emptiness of space. Unlike the space travel in the Star Trek or even Star Wars series (or even the more recent, darker version of Battlestar Galactica), the space travel of Sunshine still feels experimental and risky. The characters seem weighed down with extra loneliness because of the dying sun — not only are they adrift in space but their failure will leave them, on a practical level, with no civilization to return to. Earth is maybe a few decades from becoming lifeless and there are no other class M planets, no Tatooines for humans to escape to.

It’s 2001 that also adds a sinister note to the soft-voiced computer that runs Icarus and that heightens the tension when the audience realizes that the ship is going to keep the mission going, even if those actions cause some of the crewmembers to die. Space is not all Ewoks and Vulcans, there are scary things out there, both of human creation and otherworldly origin.

Murphy, so good as one of the few surviving Britons in 28 Days Later, is solid here as a scientist on a potentially suicidal mission. He gives the right amount of humanity to a character who feels fear and doubt but isn’t swayed from the idea that his life is nothing compared to the lives of the people left on Earth. Ideas of self sacrifice and humanity play a big role in this movie which inevitably has characters deciding (and occasionally not deciding) to put themselves at risk for the greater good or end the life of a crew mate because the mission requires it.

Sunshine is no explosion extravaganza but it makes good use of the special effects it has. The sun — it’s scorching light, the orangey glow of its appearance from behind a shade, its role in the creation of shadow — is brilliantly designed here as a huge and menacing presence against the smallness of the ship and the unlikely success of its task. The ship manages to seem both high tech and fragile.

Sunshine represents the cerebral side of the sci-fi universe, full of moments that are intriguing or frightening or sad because of their subtlety rather than their big shiny CGI. And even though the tone of this movie is darker and quieter than the crazy rides of blockbuster movies of June and May, it still does exactly what you want a summer movie to do — take you to another time and place and completely absorb all of your attention. B+

Rated R for violent content and language. Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alexander Garland, Sunshine is a hour and 47 minutes long and is distributed by 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight. The movie opens in wide release on Friday, July 20.