Sunshine

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"Sunshine" is an extraordinary film, operating simultaneously at visceral, psychological and spiritual levels as it takes us on a voyage into space with the fate of mankind at stake. The temptation is strong to compare this film, written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle, to previous space epics. But "Sunshine" is its own creature, taking inspiration from classic science fiction films but insisting on a gritty reality that much improves on past space adventures. It certainly is nothing like the pop fiction of "Star Wars" or "Star Trek" and certainly wants nothing to do with space aliens of "Alien" or "Mission to Mars."

If anything, the film harkens back to Kubrick ("2001") only with a rigorous fidelity to the probable science of a half century from now. There is this caveat: The emphasis here is on adventure, heroics and extreme tension. There is a seriousness at the film's core, but it doesn't take itself too seriously: It delivers good, old-fashioned thrills.

Americans anxious to behold the next great space movie will have to travel themselves as the film opens in the U.K., Hong Kong and other international territories this week, with further overseas rollouts throughout the month. Fox Searchlight is eyeing dates in September for its North American release, presumably to put it into Oscar contention. The movie certainly extends its boxoffice reach beyond the sci-fi brotherhood to a broad audience with a high likelihood of many repeat customers.

In 2057, our sun is dying, so mankind faces extinction. A spaceship named Icarus, carrying an enormous stellar bomb to breathe life back into the dying star, disappeared on its mission seven years earlier. In one last desperate voyage, Icarus II blasts off from the nearly frozen planet to deliver a similar nuclear payload with an Asian and American crew of eight men and women.

As the movie begins, the spacecraft is approaching its target, a still-blinding star that dominates operations in the cramped quarters. Indeed, crew members find themselves staring at a highly filtered view of the fiery wonder, captivated in a kind of worship that emulates that of the most primitive man.

Then, out of contact with Earth, the crew hears a distress signal from the original Icarus. Should they divert course to rendezvous with the stranded ship? The question is not so much whether any crew has survived -- the chances of that are minuscule -- but should they grab that other bomb? Two shots at saving mankind are better than one.

After a decision is made, a crew member makes a miscalculation that places the mission in extreme jeopardy. More accidents occur, and the crew faces an ethical choice: To compete the mission, there is only enough oxygen aboard for four people.

Cillian Murphy's Capa, the ship's physicist, is the heart of the mission, a man who displays emotions yet keeps them in check. Rose Byrne's Cassie, the pilot, is the mission's emotional core. Chris Evans' Mace, the engineer, needs to find outlets for the pressure he feels.

Capt. Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), stoic and levelheaded, is a quiet leader. Michelle Yeoh's Corazon, the biologist, takes pride in her oxygen garden, where she grows the crews' fresh food. Benedict Wong as navigation officer Trey is at the center of the mission's major miscalculation and must pay the price.

Troy Garity as Harvey, the communications officer, and Cliff Curtis as Searle, the medical officer, have their moments, but their characters are less well defined.

Among the heart-stopping episodes is a space walk by Capa and Kaneda when the ship's huge gold shield -- which reflects away the sun's tremendous heat -- is damaged and must be inspected and repaired. The entire ship must rotate so the shield is on the dark side to allow repairs, thus exposing the other side to damage and the two men to jeopardy. Here, Boyle puts a camera inside the huge helmets of the two actors so we can experience the sweat, strain and terrified emotions of the crushing job.

Then when docked with Icarus I, the crew discovers evidence of deliberate sabotage that further imperils the mission. This reaches a climax when the on-board computer of Icarus (given a HAL-like voice by Chipo Chung) detects the presence of an unknown "crew member."

Many will reject this third act as a switch in movie genres. Yet even if that is the case, Boyle has designed the villain with a compelling physical look and raises intriguing questions of science and religion.

Indeed, the major question that surrounds the mission is that of man taking back the world from God by restarting his failing sun. "Sunshine" also makes clear the psychological and physical hazards of space travel. Without the horror shocks of such films as "Event Horizon" or "Dark Star," the film demonstrates how being out in the middle of the universe for years works on the mind. Cabin fever sparks testosterone flare-ups that lead of fisticuffs, and tedium wears down even the strongest crew members.

Visual effects, the interior design and cinematography work in tandem to display a realistic working and living environments for outer space. The space ballet outside no longer evokes the wonder of "2001"; rather, this is a solid, capable craft designed to accommodate the science of 2057.

SUNSHINE
Fox Searchlight
Fox Searchlight and DNA Films in association with U.K. Film Council and Ingenious Film Partners present a DNA Films production
Credits:
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Producer: Andrew Macdonald
Cinematographer: Alwin H. Kuchler
Production designer: Mark Tildesley
Music: John Murphy, Underworld
Co-producer: Bernard Bellew
Visual effects supervisor: Tom Wood
Costume designer: Suttirat Anne Larlarb
Editor: Chris Gill
Cast:
Capa: Cillian Murphy
Corazon: Michelle Yeoh
Cassie: Rose Byrne
Harvey: Troy Garity
Capt. Kaneda: Hiroyuki Sanada
Trey: Benedict Wong
Pinbacker: Mark Strong
Mace: Chris Evans
Searle: Cliff Curtis
Voice of Icarus: Chipo Chung
Running time -- 108 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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