Solar flair

Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle

Stephen Battersby 1 April 2007

Bright spark: a few redeeming features rescue the silly science

It's not subject to the Hollywood law that says it's always right to go back to try to save one crewmember even if that will mean killing the entire human race

Editor's note: This review contains mild spoilers.

Don't stare at the sun. Keep covered up. Use sunscreen. Otherwise you'll lose all your skin, go mad, and perhaps become unaccountably blurry.

Our star is dying – what is mankind to do? The solution is obvious. To save the Earth from terminal chilliness, a team of eight ill-assorted astronauts must fly to the Sun and restart it by delivering an atom bomb "the size of Manhattan". The route should be by way of explosions, self-sacrifice, and the last-minute application of muscle power.

This might sound depressingly like a clone of The Core ("magnetic field of Earth is failing; a team of ill-assorted geonauts must fly to the core and restart it with nuclear bombs to save us all from... erm, no doubt some unpleasant lack-of-magnetism induced fate"), but although its science is only marginally less silly, Sunshine has redeeming features.

As the bomb-bearing spacecraft Icarus II nears the Sun, the atmosphere onboard is uneasy. While some of the crew are doing the action thing – venturing out in beetle-like golden spacesuits to make repairs, dodging vaporisation by sunlight – their psychologist Searle (Cliff Curtis) becomes fascinated by the Sun. He stares at it from the observation deck of the Icarus, its light as unfiltered as the computer will allow. Evidently an unhealthy habit. Then the navigation officer Trey (Benedict Wong) becomes unstable after he makes a terrible mistake, and must be sedated to stop him from committing suicide. In the background is the mystery of what happened to Icarus I, the first attempt to restart the Sun a few years before, which simply disappeared.

At times, Sunshine makes for an absorbing thriller. You can tell that this is not quite your simple sci-fi action flick when one of the crew jokes that they might "get picked off one at a time by aliens", and you're not expecting him to be ripped apart immediately afterwards. The humans are un-science-fictionally human. Even the physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) is far from freakishly geeky; merely quite sensible. Blimey, how understated. And it is refreshingly unsentimental, not subject to the Hollywood law of ethics that says it's always right to go back to try to save one crewmember even if that will mean killing the entire human race. (Hey, this is a British film, and we're a callous bunch.)

Sci-fi nerds can be entertained by the odd movie references – there's a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, when the computer is being disabled and its voice becomes briefly slurred. And there is also no question that Sunshine is visually spectacular: credit to the CGI team that all their images of a vast and turbulent Sun don't get dull.

But what's with the blurry person?

Icarus II receives an unexpected visitor, another sun-worshipper in a far worse state than Searle, deeply burned in body and mind. He brings some credible horror to the later stages of the film, and an intriguing theological angle...which is undermined a little by the special shaky camera treatment he gets. "Ah," you think, "it's the shaky-blurry guy again". Why? Was the makeup that unconvincing?

The last minutes also feature the most egregiously absurd science bits, and some wearisome mysticism, which is a pity…but doesn't quite scupper the film. I'm not sure I can say I liked it, but I did enjoy it. And at the very least Sunshine is a powerful cautionary tale against the dangers of sunworship, in both senses of the word.

Related information

Sunshine is on general release in the UK from 5 April 2007.