Sunshine has nothing to do with the similarly titled 2000 film that starred Ralph Fiennes as three generations of Hungarian Jews living through the 20th century, though oddly enough, they share an actor in common: Mark Strong.

No, this Sunshine is a science-fiction odyssey, one that falls apart near the end but still manages to carve out a unique place for itself. The film opens with voiceover narration by astronaut Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), which is a mistake — it clues us in that this character will be essential, whereas the absence of narration would have ratcheted up the abundance of clammy tension that this movie generates by giving us no idea which characters would live or die, since none of the actors is much more recognizable than the others. Anyway, Capa lays out the backstory for us: The sun is going out at some point in the future, so he and a crew of seven other astronauts have been sent on a spaceship called Icarus II to drop a giant bomb into the sun, hoping the explosion will reignite it and thus save life on earth.

It makes all kinds of sense that director Danny Boyle would turn to science fiction. Every movie he makes looks like it’s happening on some other planet. A numinous glow suffused even relatively grounded films such as the misbegotten The Beach and the incandescent Millions. This film pairs him with German cinematographer Alwin Küchler, and the results are often breathtakingly beautiful, as the filmmakers give the visual clichés of space movies a good shake. The spaceship’s giant arboretum that provides food and oxygen for the crew is a remarkable sight, as is the extreme form of sunbathing practiced by the psych officer (Cliff Curtis) on the observation deck. The sequences outside the ship are no less innovative, with snazzy-looking gold reflective shields on both the vessel and the astronauts’ space suits.


As for the story, the filmmakers conduct themselves with full awareness of the sci-fi movies that have come before. They quickly squash the 2001 scenario, and a very funny one-liner dispatches the Alien scenario. The crew’s interpersonal chemistry takes as many hits as the spaceship itself, and Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland pay just as much attention to both. The small multinational cast delivers excellent low-key performances, with Japan’s Hiroyuki Sanada exuding calm authority as the captain, and Chris Evans (who comes off like such a lightweight in the Fantastic Four movies) bestowed with a newfound gravitas in this setting. The filmmakers spring some chilling surprises on us, as when Icarus II’s computer gives Capa a head count of astronauts that doesn’t tally with his own. It’s a shame that the climactic revelation of what’s causing things to go wrong on the spaceship is so cheesy. That misstep keeps the movie from greatness but doesn’t prevent Sunshine from drawing gasps of wonder and terror the way the best science fiction does.