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Thoughtful Sunshine Provides Cerebral Sci-Fi

  • Stephen McGarvey Excecutive Editor
  • Updated Nov 11, 2008
Thoughtful <i>Sunshine</i> Provides Cerebral Sci-Fi

DVD Release Date:  January 8, 2008
Theatrical Release Date: July 20, 2007 (limited); July 27, 2007 (wide)
Rating: R (for violent content and language)
Genre: Science Fiction
Run Time: 108 min.
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, Troy Garity, Mark Strong

Science fiction stories, when done properly, provide interesting new moral dilemmas for characters to face. Offering us problems that are outside our current paradigm, sci-fi presents us appealing opportunities for satisfying drama. Yet most contemporary science fiction films opt for mind-numbing special effects over finely crafted plot and characters.

Not so with the poignant Sunshine which marries heart-stopping suspense with thought-provoking moral quandaries to create one of the most fascinating space movies in years.

In many ways reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed film 2001: A Space Odyssey with its talking computer and deeper moral issues at play, Sunshine is far less confusing and not at all pretentious. The year is 2057. The sun is dying, we are told in a voice-over by physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy), and thus the planet Earth is slowly beginning to freeze over. To save the sun and prevent the extinction of all life on earth, mankind has launched the spaceship Icarus to take a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan to the sun to “jump-start” it back into working again. Yet Icarus lost contact with Earth and failed its mission. Now several years later in a last-ditch effort, Icarus II sets out on what may well be a suicide mission, to succeed where the first mission failed.

But the details of the setup are less important than the moral dilemmas the crew must face. All we really need to know is the crew of eight astronauts and scientists are stuck in a confined space for an incredibly complex months-long trip, and the fate of humanity rests on their every decision.

After so long in space, they are fatigued and apprehensive about completing their mission. The weariness is etched into their faces. All of the cast are convincing as the portray they dread of their potential death. Each has his or her own way of dealing with the magnitude of the task at hand. As the film begins, they are entering the final leg of their journey and can no longer communicate with the folks back home. They are truly on their own and must count on their own decision-making skills. But as their mental acuity wanes, mistakes are made, plunging them into peril and jeopardizing the mission.

The film builds tension and suspense effectively as we begin to care deeply about these characters and watch them struggle with the consequences of their decisions. Thanks to communications officer Harvey (Troy Garity), the crew discovers that the first Icarus is intact and has apparently been drifting in space for the seven years. After deep consideration and debate, they decide to deviate from their course to rendezvous with the lost vessel. Not to check for possible survivors, since that is a luxury that they can ill afford on such a crucial mission, but to pick up a second intact bomb explains Capa, in case their theoretical plan has a hiccup. Of course, the unforeseen costs of their decisions throw new moral predicaments at the crew almost faster than they have time to react to them. When the ship’s navigator (Benedict Wong) miscalculates one of the hundreds of mathematical factors involved in meeting up with the lost Icarus I, Capa and ship’s captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), scramble to fix the ensuing damage to their ship before the ship’s computer overrides their instruction to keep them on course. In one of most harrowing scenes of the film, the crew must decide if they will override the computer or allow it to shift the ship’s heat shield, keeping them on track for their mission but killing the intrepid captain and Capa. 

The pure visual spectacle of the film amazes without being over the top. Whether we are watching the beauty of the sun’s swirling gases or the misshapen ship glide across a star field, Sunshine maintains a fabulous, yet realistic style. (With the exception of the few times we see crew living and working in parts of the ship that are stunningly cavernous. With every square inch of atmosphere in a space craft that supports human life artificially maintained against the vacuum and extreme temperatures of outer space, it seems unlikely that such huge rooms could be maintained. Unfortunately this is a mistake that most science fiction movies make.)

In the end the story sags a bit as it strays from the crew trying to keep up with decisions they are forced to make under rapidly deteriorating conditions, to a more boilerplate suspense thriller. Despite this turn, Sunshine is solid, reflective entertainment that refuses to sacrifice compelling storytelling on the altar of bigger and better explosions.

Editor’s Note: Be warned, the cautions below reveal “spoilers” about the film’s plot. If you would rather not know, just be aware that Sunshine is violent and gruesome in places and earns its “R” rating.


  • Drugs/Alcohol: None, although a depressed man is given sedatives.
  • Language/Profanity: A moderate amount of profanity and vulgarity uttered under great stress.
  • Sexual Content: None.
  • Violence: Two crew members get into fistfights a couple of times. Several characters are brutally killed or murdered. Several are slashed or murdered with a high-tech scalpel. One commits suicide by slashing his wrists; we don’t see him do it, but his corpse is shown. Another dies in the vacuum of space. Another is frozen and partially crushed in a coolant tank.  Horribly burned by overexposure to the sun’s rays, one character terrorizes the rest. Several characters are incinerated by the sun’s unfiltered rays, and their ashes fill the ship.
  • Worldview: Although it’s never put exactly this way, the crew assumes that the end (their mission to save humanity) justifies just about any means. Several discussions take place addressing how one or all of them are expendable if necessary to achieve their ultimate goal. The practical application of this mindset leads them to do the unthinkable. A madman raves about his discussions with God and his desire to carry out God’s will, which is to allow humanity to die.