The sun is dying. Eight astronauts, 55 millions miles from Earth, are on a mission to re-ignite it and thereby save humanity. Thus begins Danny Boyle's highly impressive sci-fi thriller Sunshine, a work that combines eye-popping visuals with an eco-conscious screenplay and several striking performances, thereby living up to its own considerable ambitions.
Boyle and his colleagues eschew irony and cheap tricks: Sunshine is not a Dark Star-like spoof. Nor, despite moments of galactic gore and terrifying chase sequences, is it straightforward genre fare. With its meticulous craftsmanship and formal daring, it is closer in tone to dystopian tales like 2001: A Space Odyssey or THX:1138 than it is to conventional astronaut-in-peril yarns.
Sunshine's box-office prospects are hard to call. The film has already received considerable critical support. Astutely cast with a mix of actors likely to appeal to European, Asian and American cinemagoers alike, it ought to prove accessible in most markets.
One question is whether its (at least initially) slow burning storyline and serious treatment of its themes will play with audiences accustomed to more frenetic and simple-minded sci-fi and horor movies. Alex Garland's screenplay is rich in classical references (in particular, to the myth of Icarus), asides about religion and jargon-laden scientific dialogue.
Some multiplex audiences may be put off by the trippy, New Age quality of certain sequences in which astronauts stare in awe at the sun. Then again, the often awesomely beautiful visuals, in particular the play between the darkness of space and the incandescence of the sun, are one of the chief recommendations.
Set in 2057, the film follows the Icarus II, a spaceship on a mission to drop a thermo-nuclear bomb on the sun and thereby re-ignite it. Deep into their voyage, when they have already lost radio contact with Earth, the crew members hear distress signals from the Icarus I, which tried to carry out the same mission seven years before but disappeared in mysterious circumstances.
Its re-emergence lends a ghoulish, supernatural dimension to the storytelling. Following the advice of the ship's physicist Capa (Murphy), the Icarus goes on a huge detour to hook up with the first spaceship. No-one knows whether any of its crew members are still living. However, if Icarus 2 can access its thermo-nuclear material, the ship will have a 'double payload' and a better chance of succeeding in its mission.
As Sunshine progresses, Boyle slowly ratchets up the tension and the tone becomes gradually darker and more menacing. The relationships between the astronauts begin to fray as the mission goes awry. Food and oxygen are running out. It becomes apparent that the chances of survival are slight. We see the best and worst of human behaviour.
In many effects-driven movies, the film-makers risk losing sight of their characters - but it's not a mistake Boyle makes here. Despite the claustrophobic settings and the relatively sparse dialogue, he ensures that the audience is aware of the strengths and foibles of all eight astronauts. The astronauts are still at the prey of human error, despite all the technology they have at their disposal
On one level, this is a study of how humans behave in extreme circumstances. Selfishness and altruism exist side by side, and every character type is aboard. Mace (Evans) combines machismo with heroism. Searle (Curtis) is a far more cerebral and even dreamy figure.
While humour and irony are generally kept at bay, there are some enjoyably morbid touches: for instance, the astronauts investigating a dusty, seemingly derelict spaceship and learning that '80% of the dust is human skin'; or the scene in which we see someone freeze to death and turn from flesh into brittle nothing-ness.
Against the odds, Boyle and company contrive a relatively upbeat ending. This cues one final piece of spectacle in a film that is distinguished throughout by its set-pieces.
It is a long way from the scabrous world of heroin addicts in Trainspotting, Boyle's breakthrough film, to the deep space shown in Sunshine but even thought they are worlds apart, both works show much of the same flair and visual imagination.
Boyle is helped by his actors. In particular, Cillian Murphy (who also appeared in Boyle's 28 Days Later) gives one of his best performances as Capa, who ends up taking all the most seismic decisions. Chris Evans (of Fantastic Four fame) registers strongly, too.
As the self-reliant Cassie, Rose Byrne is as close as the film comes to the Sigourney Weaver character in Alien.
Formidable production design, visual effects work and sound editing add to the increasingly creepy atmosphere. The Icarus II spaceship is intricately designed, and we see every detail of the ship's metal entrails and its many gadgets.
In one of the film's more derivative touches, the ship has its own omniscient computer which holds friendly discussions with the astronauts about how best to complete their mission.
Rumblings, crashes and creaks on the soundtrack heighten the sense of foreboding. With its ladders, long corridors, sealed off compartments and maze-like architecture, the spaceship proves a dramatic backdrop for the terrifying chase sequences in the final reel. It is as much a character as the astronaut protagonists themselves.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
UK Film Council
Ingenious Film Partners
Major Studio Partners
20th Century Fox
Alwin H Kuchler