The sun is dying in Sunshine, but the familiarity of Trainspotting director Danny Boyle's latest makes one think an equally dire death is the sci-fi genre's aptitude for invention. A gorgeously crafted intergalactic saga sorely lacking in originality or profundity, Boyle's film marries 2001 aesthetics with an Alien narrative to create a rather straightforward – and superficially entertaining – adventure devoid of much meaning. Talk of God, humanity and morality abound but Alex Garland's screenplay only lightly grazes such heady philosophical issues, instead investing most of its time and energy on decently drawn characters, an authentic sense of setting, reasonably taut set pieces, and custom-built showcases for dazzling CG sunscapes, twinkling light flares, and immense cascades of roiling fire hungry to fill the void of space. On a purely visceral level, Sunshine is never less than engaging, and frequently gripping. Yet the general emptiness of its head is frustrating given its pretensions of high-minded deepness, and the commonplaceness of its plot is ultimately dispiriting for a movie seemingly so in awe of the beguiling, near-incomprehensible mysteriousness of the vast universe.
Boyle's film charts the mission of those aboard Icarus II, who have been charged with traveling to the perishing sun and reigniting it with a nuclear bomb (dubbed the "Payload") in a last ditch effort to save Earth from the grip of a solar winter. Icarus II is a marvelously envisioned vessel, its interiors full of high-tech doodad-ery made raggedy after 16 months of use by its human inhabitants, and its exterior marked by a giant, circular solar-paneled shield that protects the craft from the sun's lethal rays. Less impressive is the standard-issue motley crew, comprised of a stoically heroic captain (Hiroyuki Sanada), a sensitive girl (Rose Byrne), an arrogant coward (Troy Garity), a nondescript nobody (Michelle Yeoh), an out-there shrink (Cliff Curtis), a cold pragmatist (Chris Evans), and a sympathetic hero (Cillian Murphy). Save for Evans, who finds himself stuck with the most thanklessly schematic of roles, the cast admirably infuses their sketchily conceived astronauts with a dollop of relatable personality. Their hopes, dreams, and quasi-religious musings, however, are mere specks on the cosmic windshield of Sunshine, whose primary focus always remains on its computer-generated intergalactic wonders.
This isn't a wholly negative tack to take, as the film is a sensory feast, its bounty of trippy imagery and haunting sonic design – melding ominous silence and hollow whooshes with schizoid electronic blips, buzzes and beats – frequently helping prop up the somewhat hackneyed proceedings. And the director's transitions between claustrophobia (in the ship's quarters, in the men's spacesuit helmets) and expansiveness, as well as between stillness and cacophony, are technically dexterous, and bolster the tension which grows exponentially more oppressive as Icarus II – motivated by a surprise distress signal – decides to take a detour to Icarus I, their failed forbearer. But the question persists: to what end these aesthetic sensations? Boyle's camerawork strives for hallucinatory insightfulness even as Garland's script emphasizes action over ideas, a strange combination that keeps one transfixed by the goings-on at hand and yet hungry for greater intellectual sustenance, a thought-provoking scrap or two that might make the crew's dire attempts to fulfill their mission resonate as more than a routine sci-fi escapade.
And routine it eventually becomes. Internecine squabbles, investigations of apparently abandoned aircrafts, and surprise dilemmas all come to play a part in Sunshine's story, developments aided by the lead performance of Murphy – who, in an underwritten part, sturdily balances average-Joe sweetness with whacked-out agitation – but which, for the most part, pay off in disappointingly banal ways. While I wouldn't think of spoiling the outcome, anyone acquainted with the genre will quickly recognize the rather mundane "who dies next?" game being played by Boyle and Garland, whose reverence for Alien is initially tolerable but soon leads them down a path of unimaginative scary movie tactics. Things devolve into wonky time-space craziness during the film's riveting conclusion, thankfully decimating the preceding events' safe predictability with an electric blast of reality-disturbing fantasticality. Unfortunately, though, even this bizarre finale says next to nothing meaningful about free will, mankind's place in the universe, or the divine, instead proving merely a narratively consistent but largely unfulfilling last-gasp attempt to make Sunshine more than a ho-hum voyage into the great unknown.