"Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago, the Icarus project sent a mission to restart the sun, but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I, Robert Capa, and a crew of seven left earth frozen in solar winter. Our payload: A stellar bomb with a mass the equivalent to Manhattan Island. Our purpose: To create a star within a star."
Capa's clipped narrative synopsis sets the stage for Sunshine, a brightly-titled film about humanity's dimming hopes for survival.
Even before anything goes awry on the second mission—and we know it's only a matter of time until it does—tension grips the eight-person Asian and American crew of the Icarus II. Unexpectedly severe solar winds cut off communication with the earth. Capa and a fellow American named Mace wrestle over who will send the last message home. Another astronaut, Searle, seeks solace staring at a highly filtered image of the sun.
Then—a distress signal from ... Icarus I.
Despite significant risk, the crew concludes two bombs will double their chances of success. So they divert their trajectory to rendezvous with the derelict craft.
And things fall apart.
An engineer named Trey adjusts the ship's heading, but fails to reprogram the craft's massive mirrored sun shields to compensate. That mistake catalyzes a chain reaction of calamity that imperils the mission and makes successfully intercepting the Icarus I a necessity.
The crew of that ill-fated mission, the astronauts discover, has long since turned to dust. But lurking in the dark bulkheads of the Icarus I is a secret that threatens to be humankind's ultimate undoing. Sunshine, indeed.
The crew of the Icarus II knows there's a good chance they won't make it home. But for the most part, they're ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to save humanity. Desperate situations force several characters to volunteer for mission-critical tasks that each knows will seal his doom.
Capa's last video message to his sister and her children is tender and hopeful. An equally heartrending scene occurs when surviving characters are forced to abandon Searle on the Icarus I (after he volunteers to be left behind). One of the female crew members, Cassie, tells him, "We're going to go now. We love you."
After a fire decimates the ship's oxygen-producing garden, the ship's botanist finds a lone shoot of new life—perhaps suggesting symbolically that there's always the possibility of survival, even amid what looks to be complete devastation.
When the Icarus II docks with its ghost-ship predecessor, the crew finds what is apparently the last video message from that ship's captain, a man named Pinbacker. He's losing his grip on sanity—not to mention his hope—as he says, "We are dust, nothing more. To this dust we will return. When He chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God." Underscoring this strange monologue is the fact that the newcomers have just stumbled upon the ashen, sun-fried bodies of the Icarus I's crew in the solar observation room.
[Spoiler Warning] It turns out that Pinbacker is still very much alive, driven by twisted, religiously fueled hysteria to be the instrument of mankind's destruction. "I've been waiting so long," he tells Capa. "At the end of time, one man remains. The last man alone with God. I am that man. ... For seven years I spoke only to God. He called me to take us all to hell."
The only other imagery in the film that even hints at spiritual things are shots of Cassie wearing a crucifix. (Contradictorily, the film's Web site says that she's an atheist.)
During a spacewalk to repair the ship's shields, a crew member is unable to make it back to the air lock before being vaporized by the sun's radiation. Another is ejected into space sans protective suit, and instantly freezes to death. (It's -272 degrees in space behind the ship's shield.) His frozen body ricochets off the Icarus II, and one of his arms shatters, resulting in a cloud of frozen blood droplets. Still another's leg gets trapped beneath a mainframe computer in a huge tank of liquid coolant; blood mingles with that liquid.
Searle has a growing fascination with watching the sun through a filter that lets in only a fraction of its radiation. His preoccupation results in a flood of light so intense it has the feeling of violence. And as the movie progresses, sun-burnt sores on his face grow increasingly severe. Searle presumably commits suicide by opening the filter on the sun screen completely after he's left behind on the Icarus I.
Similarly, Trey is so disheartened by his mistake that he takes his own life by slashing his wrists. As with Searle, the camera spares us the actual suicide, but in this case we do witness blood-smeared walls and Trey's badly lacerated arms. A red puddle of blood cradles his corpse.
Capa repeatedly has nightmares about falling into the blazing surface of the sun. Capa and Mace have two fistfights in which they slam each other into the ship's walls. Explosions engulf different parts of Icarus II in several scenes.
And then the final act burns its way across the screen. [Spoiler Warning] Pinbacker's years alone on Icarus I have not only warped his mind but his body too. Fleeting shots reveal someone whose skin has been badly burnt—presumably by exposure to the sun—though the camera never focuses long on his shadowy, wraith-like form. The result is a monstrous man whose leather-like features look a lot like Freddy Krueger's from A Nightmare on Elm Street. And the Nightmare parallel continues as Pinbacker attempts to kill each surviving crew member with a vibrating scalpel. He slashes Capa's chest badly with it (we see quite a bit of blood), and he succeeds in skewering another astronaut in the back (we hear more than see the fatal wounding). In a grisly scene of hand-to-hand combat, Capa pulls the skin off Pinbacker's arms like one person removing another's gloves.
Sunshine director Danny Boyle blends sci-fi, psychological thriller, disaster and horror ingredients in this visually breathtaking one-way trip to the sun.
From a cinematography standpoint, it's virtually impossible not to compare Sunshine's spectacular sweeping shots of the Icarus II to similar images in Stanley Kubrick's iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The fact that crew members communicate with a soothing, female-voiced computer only adds to that vibe.
It's the characters here, though, that make Sunshine's story truly compelling—at least initially. Despite their deep flaws, they're mostly sympathetic as they wrestle with profound questions about right and wrong—with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance. One poignant example: With oxygen supplies dwindling, survivors Mace, Capa, Corazon and Cassie have to decide whether or not to kill Trey (who's heavily sedated and unconscious) in order to save all of humanity. Capa coldly reasons that if they have to "weigh the life of one against the future of mankind—kill him." Cassie dissents. And as a viewer, you can't help but ask the question, What is the right thing to do in such a no-win situation?
But if much of the film works well at raising such philosophical questions (and perhaps answering them by featuring several characters who are willing to sacrifice their own lives—not someone else's—to save humanity), it stumbles badly by shifting from thinking-man's sci-fi spectacle to slacker-guy's slasher-fest in the last 20 minutes. Suddenly, it feels as if the spaceship has been invaded by a zombie left over from 28 Days Later (one of Boyle's last films).
Not only does this shift knock the story out of orbit, it bombards us with concentrated doses of gruesome violence as well. And the fact that God gets credit for "inspiring" a crazed character's violence only intensified my deep dissatisfaction with Sunshine's conclusion.