While we often take it for granted during the rushed blur of our daily lives, a single glance up at the sky should make it pretty obvious why primitive cultures once worshipped the sun. That’s why it’s no surprise that our nearest star has been a prominent figure in storytelling all the way from Egyptian mythology up to modern-day Superman flicks.
While the sun is usually seen as a symbol of life and hope, our solar dependency has also inspired several stories about the terror of no longer being able to rely on its warmth. When it comes to movies, there’s a certain underrated Sci-Fi flick that expertly explores this specific kind of cosmic horror while also serving as an entertaining dive into the darker side of space travel. Naturally, I’m referring to Danny Boyle’s 2007 thriller Sunshine, which is currently celebrating its 15th anniversary.
For those who haven’t seen it, Sunshine follows an ensemble of astronauts on a desperate mission to reignite our dying sun after a previous attempt failed for mysterious reasons. During their arduous trek to the center of the solar system, the aptly named Icarus II happens upon a distress signal from its ill-fated predecessor. After a narrow vote, the crew decides to investigate the anomaly, embarking on a risky detour that could put the fate of humanity in jeopardy.
Once again directing a script from established genre writer (and now celebrated director) Alex Garland, Sunshine was Danny Boyle’s attempt at revitalizing the psychologically focused science fiction stories of the 60s and 70s while also challenging himself within a notoriously difficult genre. Borrowing from classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, the film was meant to explore the human consequences of these scientific breakthroughs rather than the sci-fi spectacle itself.
This focus on the subjective side of the genre also influenced the decision to feature a diverse ensemble cast, with the film bringing together a formidable group of talented thespians to populate the Icarus II. From our physicist protagonist Capa (played by Cillian Murphy in his second collaboration with Boyle after 28 Days Later) to Cliff Curtis’ introspective Dr. Searle, these characters are believable as a desperate group of specialists forced to work together for the greater good. Even the incredibly talented Michelle Yeoh makes an appearance as the crew’s resident botanist, as well as a pre-MCU (but post-Fantastic-Four) Chris Evans.
With the exception of Murphy, which makes sense given Capa’s portrayal as a misunderstood loner, the cast actually lived together before and during production as they immersed themselves in their characters. During this process, the actors benefited from in-depth backstories written by Gia Milinovich, exploring fascinating details like Mace’s (Evans) unspoken romantic feelings for Cassie (Rose Byrne) and expanding on character motivations. To be honest, it’s a shame that many of these elements didn’t really make into the finished picture, as they would have made the crew’s ultimate sacrifice even more impactful.
Of course, I’d argue that the film’s biggest achievement is how it plays with genre expectations, effortlessly transitioning from hard sci-fi to psychological drama and even incorporating slasher elements towards the end of the flick. While it’s not exactly a traditional scary movie, there are undeniable shades of Ridley Scott’s Alien and even a bit of John Carpenter sprinkled throughout the picture, which is why I think it appeals to horror fans.
In fact, the film’s controversial decision to descend into horror during its final act ended up alienating some viewers upon release, but I think it was a brave move that perfectly compliments the script’s musings about nihilism and spirituality. From the antagonist’s sun-induced madness to the bizarre visual filter surrounding his horrific burns (as if the film is suggesting that reality itself is being distorted around Mark Strong’s demented character), there are plenty of elements here that would be right at home in an H.P. Lovecraft story, making Danny Boyle’s Sunshine a quite literal champion of cosmic horror.
These existential scares are balanced by hauntingly beautiful moments like Kaneda’s tragic demise and a trippy yet emotional finale. Sunshine also boasts some genuinely iconic sci-fi imagery, with the photography making especially great use of color, often bathing melancholy scenes in an eerie amber glow. Naturally, the movie also contains plenty of “sci-fi porn”, featuring thrilling space walks and futuristic technology that’s often brought to life via optical trickery and clever set design rather than CGI.
The impressive visuals are also boosted by yet another phenomenal score by John Murphy (in his fifth collaboration with Boyle) alongside the electronic music group Underworld. Much like Murphy’s work in 28 Days Later, pieces of Sunshine’s score have found a life of their own in other media as other creators recycled the film’s music for their own purposes. Not only was Adagio in D Minor (also known as The Surface of the Sun) featured in 2009’s Kick-Ass, but it recently showed up in Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman 1984, further exemplifying the staying power of this awesome soundtrack.
While some elements of the script don’t quite hold up to scrutiny, like the story’s heavy reliance on plot contrivances and supposedly smart characters acting like spoiled teenagers rather than professional astronauts, I think that there’s an artistry to the experience that mostly makes up for most of these issues. It’s always clear that Boyle is having lots of fun with this unusually large budget, playing around with camera setups and effects in the most imaginative ways possible. This unbridled creativity doesn’t always work, but it results in a film that’s consistently interesting even when it stumbles. It’s also hard to deny the surreal beauty of the flick’s final moments, which I believe are up there with the likes of sci-fi epics like Interstellar and Moon.
Sunshine may not be Danny Boyle’s magnum opus, but I think it’s a shining example of cosmic horror done right and definitely one of my personal favorite entries in the director’s eclectic filmography. As a fan of pulpy sci-fi, I’ve come to accept that minor scientific inaccuracies and flimsy plot points are often irrelevant when dealing with compelling concepts like advanced theoretical physics and metaphysical interpretations of God, and that’s why I’d recommend this ambitious thriller to any fan of existential horror even 15 years later.