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'Sunshine': Space Opera with a Dark Cloud or Two

Sun spot: Searle (Cliff Curtis) broods over the fate of the <em>Icarus</em> mission from a shipboard observation room.
Sun spot: Searle (Cliff Curtis) broods over the fate of the Icarus mission from a shipboard observation room.

Brightness has never seemed as menacing as it does in Sunshine. This nail-bitingly tense science- fiction thriller emphasizes both the fearsome power of our friend the sun and how bereft we would be without its rays.

Screenwriter Alex Garland has given Sunshine a strong pulp concept: The time is the future, and the sun, billions of years ahead of schedule, is dying, presenting mankind with the unpleasant threat of extinction.

No sooner do we meet everyone on board the spaceship Icarus II — on a mission to restart the sun with a massive bomb — than a crisis arrives, in the form of a signal from the first Icarus, long thought lost. No matter how the Icarus II responds, audiences can be sure that anything that can possibly go wrong will do so.

Sunshine is the latest film from British director Danny Boyle, whose eclectic résumé, including Millions, Trainspotting, and 28 Days Later, reveals a refusal to make the same film twice. It's an approach that allows Boyle to bring the energy and enthusiasm of newness to each genre he tries.

Sunshine is a thoughtful genre film, one with philosophical concerns about God, man and morality. It's not for nothing that Icarus' talking computer echoes the iconic Hal of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film has also devoted time and effort to making the Icarus crew into recognizable people rather than Hollywood stick figures.

One of the draws of science fiction is always its look, and Sunshine's is distinctive. Both the interior of Icarus and the exterior of deep space have a strange, unnerving aspect. An especially wonderful touch are the gold lamé space suits; they're the very thing Elvis would have worn if astronauting had ever come his way.

Sadly, this film eventually floats free of the plausibility that has been its anchor and falls victim to conventional plotting. Sunshine is too smart to be fatally wounded, but it's hard not to wish it were smarter still.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MoviesMorning Edition
Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.