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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #355: Sunshine


The proof that there are no movie genres British filmmaker Danny Boyle will not tackle, his science-fiction thriller “Sunshine” aims to go where no sci-fi movie has gone before: the inside of the sun. Impossible? Most likely, but then again that is why they attach the word “fiction” to science.

This is a movie to watch on a cold winter afternoon, which is exactly what I ended up doing when I first saw it. I missed out on this film when it first came out in 2007, so I had to make-do and rent the DVD. This was back when I was living off campus at the university of Sherbrooke, in Québec. No roommates, so this was just me in my tiny apartment during one of my days off, unless I would go to the campus’ film club that specialized in cult movies. Seeing “Sunshine” for the first time, I thought it could eventually end up on a cult film list.

Like most outer space adventures, “Sunshine” is set on a single ship with crewmembers who have to learn to live with each other for months. Their ship is the Icarus II and their mission is to succeed where Icarus I failed: reigniting the sun. Sometime in the future the sun is dying, plunging the Earth into a new ice age. The solution is of course to build a ship with a shield powerful enough to penetrate the sun and detonate a bomb inside its core in the hope of heating up the Earth once again. Obviously, this is a one-way ticket.

This being in the near future when humanity has combined all of its resources for a common mission, the crew of the Icarus II is made up of scientists and astronauts from all over the globe. Irishman Cillian Murphy is Robert Capa, the physicist in charge of detonating a bomb with the power to reignite the sun. American Chris Evans is Mace, an engineer, Australian Rose Byrne is Cassie, a pilot, Malaysian Michelle Yeoh is Corazon, a biologist, New Zealander Cliff Curtis is Searle, the ship’s doctor/psychological officer, American Troy Garrity is Harvey, a communications officer, Japanese Hiroyuki Sanada is Kaneda, the ship’s captain, and British born Benedict Wong is Trey, the navigator. Here are seven characters of international backgrounds who each have a specific job on a ship heading towards the warmest place in the solar system.

Like many science-fiction films, the ship itself has a voice, provided by Chipo Chung, making it a full-fledged character. In fact, “Sunshine” has a lot in common with many classics of the genre. “Alien” comes to mind, since the crew eventually has to deal with an unwelcome guest, played by a British actor who specializes in villains. There are also evocations of “Solaris,” “Silent Running” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as they all feature skeleton crews confined to a ship that has very little chances of landing back on Earth one day.

Yet “Sunshine” manages to stand on its own two feet. For one thing, in this age of green screens it is admirable to see a production crew willing to build giant stages and sets for the ship’s interiors. Michelle Yeoh’s biologist is in charge of providing the ship with enough oxygen to make it to its far-away destination, and in order to do so; she has her own garden filled with oxygen producing plants. Just about each character has his own special room for his or her job on the ship.

Of all of these characters, Searle, the psychological officer is initially the most disturbing. He may be in charge of the crew’s sanity, but he has the unusual habit of sitting in a room with a pair of sunglasses and staring at the sun while constantly lowering the window’s solar shield. It is as though he is a moth staring at the world’s biggest flame, and is wondering what is the burning point.

The film goes into action mode in the third act with the introduction of a character whose survival is very improbable, but until then, this is a very psychological tale. Imagine having to live in a metal box for months, with only six other people, and knowing you will die if your mission succeeds. On the flip side, if your mission fails, everyone you know on Earth will eventually die of cold. Now, how do these crewmembers sleep at night? This may be inaccurate science fiction, but it is very compelling fiction.

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