Danny Boyle's first (and purportedly last) science fiction film is an interesting and frustrating experience. Set 50 years in the future, 'Sunshine' tells the story of a spaceship, the Icarus II, that is on its way to the sun to detonate a nuclear explosive with the aim of 'reigniting' it. The sun needs reigniting because it is dying, and the human race will die along with it. Icarus II is the second ship (the 'II' is a clue) to be sent on such a mission after the Icarus I mysteriously disappeared. All goes well with the mission initially, but as the multi-ethnic crew go about their routine tasks it is apparent that their nerves are frayed, and the closer they get to the sun the more strained their behaviour becomes. Things take an unexpected turn when they receive a signal from Icarus I, which appears to still be intact; a divisive decision is made to attempt to salvage the nuclear explosive from Icarus I (because two bombs increase the odds of success). This deviation from the mission sets into motion a chain of unfortunate events that leads to tragic consequences and forces the crew to improvise and make sacrifices while trying to maintain a grip on what remains of their sanity.
The first two thirds of 'Sunshine' are pretty great, and despite the presence of some dodgy science and dubious plot contrivances the film attempts to make the journey at least feel realistic. It's one of the few space travel based movies of recent times to really put across the complexity and dangers of such an endeavour. The script also introduces psychological aspects of the journey, with the isolation and danger of the mission coupled with the enormous responsibility the crew bears taking its toll on them. The ramifications of being so close to the sun, a heavenly body that dominates mankind's immediate universe, are also worked into the story. The last third of the film, unfortunately, completely derails as it introduces a ludicrous plot device (that is quite appropriately depicted in a surreal fashion) and turns into something reminiscent of a slasher horror film. Which is a shame, because while said plot device is linked to the psychological themes of the film it is jarringly incongruous; had the story simply stuck to its more restrained and thoughtful approach, the film could have been great.
I've thoroughly enjoyed Boyle's last couple of films and think that this one matches up to them in terms of filmmaking quality (script issues aside). 'Sunshine' is extremely tense throughout, and has its moments of abject terror, horror, and surrealism. It is impeccably put together, with terrific sets and some truly eye popping visuals. And like his previous films this one is thought provoking, and it works as a psychological sci-fi film. The characters don't have any background or depth and are essentially just crewmembers carrying out their duties, but the gravity of their situation feels palpable and their behaviour rings true. The diverse cast - Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, and Benedict Wong - are all fairly good in their respective roles, with Evans in particular being a surprising standout. I also found Sanada to be quite memorable as the quietly dignified captain of the Icarus II.
'Sunshine' is a film that's two-thirds very good and one third 'WTF?', which is a weird combination. The climactic denouement is bizarre but I found it to ultimately be satisfying. The film stayed in my head for quite a while and I think it's one worth re-watching - being prepared for the jarring change of tone and style may put me in a better position to actually appreciate it more on a second go round. It's visually spectacular and has something for your mind to chew on which, despite its egregious flaws, makes it pretty good in my book.