If you're going on a space mission that takes you dangerously close to the sun, you're asking for trouble by naming your ship after Icarus, who died from flying dangerously close to the sun. Blindness to bad omens may be the least of the Icarus II's troubles in Sunshine, the unsteady science-fiction thriller from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle.
You don't have to be a sci-fi fan to question Sunshine's premise: 50 years from now, the sun has started cooling off, and Icarus II represents humanity's last-ditch attempt to deliver a bomb to re-ignite Sol and save the Earth. After some rushed introductions of the ship's tightly wound, eight-person crew (including Cillian Murphy and Michelle Yeoh), Boyle crafts thrilling scenes to the perils of space travel, particularly at such close proximity to the sun.
The film pays nail-bitingly close attention to the state of the ship's oxygen reserve and protective panels; during an emergency space walk, a pair of crew members must stay on the ship's "dark side" or be incinerated. Plus, the crew's psyches suffer from claustrophobia, mission pressure and the mystery of what happened to their vanished predecessor, Icarus I. Sunshine makes a welcome throwback to such pre-Star Wars space movies as Silent Running, and even makes overt reference to John Carpenter's Dark Star.
Some characters even hint that they've seen old science-fiction movies. On a tense mission, when one crew member suggests they stay together, another sarcastically retorts, "We might get picked off one by one by aliens." Unfortunately, a movie can't mock a cliché and then expect its audience to swallow nearly the same cliché a half-hour later. Sunshine's last act disintegrates completely as it jettisons scientific plausibility and visual coherence in favor of slasher-flick conventions and pseudo-mysticism.
Sunshine reaches for a larger theme through the way the astronauts show a moth-to-the-flame obsession with sunlight the closer they get to the sun. Fans of Danny Boyle can plot a trajectory that connects Sunshine's solar addicts to the junkies in Trainspotting and even the "rage virus" zombies in 28 Days Later ... (which also featured Murphy). All begin to lose their humanity in the face of uncontrollable compulsions. Unfortunately, in Sunshine it's like the death of the sun isn't a big enough idea for Boyle, and it's disappointing to see the film reach genuine heights, only to crash and burn.
Sunshine, 2 stars. Directed by Danny Boyle. Stars Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne. Rated R. Opens July 20. At area theaters.