"Sunshine" is Danny Boyle's homage to "2001"* while serving up an environmental metaphor in a sci-fi setting, a dissertation on the uses of faith, while also landing in the "Incredible Mess" subcategory of films.
It goes like this: Our sun is dying. Seven years ago, the spaceship "Icarus I" headed out for the sun to drop a payload the "mass" of Manhattan Island to re-ignite it and stop the new Ice Age developing on Earth. The ship disappeared mysteriously, and so, "Icarus II" was launched, same mission, same payload. You'd think with the luck they had with the first one, they wouldn't name the second ship the same thing. Plus, if you're going to the sun, "Icarus" might not be the most inspiring legend to name your ship after.**
Be that as it may, the ship is as "green" as can be, with its own eco-system/garden (overseen by Michelle Yeoh) providing oxygen for the ship. But it wouldn't be much of a space drama if things went smoothly, and before you can radio "Houston, we've got a problem," people get hot under the helmet-collar and things start to come apart faster than an "O" ring on a chilly day. The ship's shrink may be getting a bit too much sun. The "payload expert" (Cillian Murphy) and systems engineer (Chris Evans) are not getting along in what the pilot (Rose Byrne) calls "an excess of manhood breaking out in the com-center," and a slight miscalculation by the navigator creates a series of unfortunate events, and turns him suicidal.
Geez, folks, go outside. Get some sun.
Danny Boyle can be counted on to breathe new oxygen into any genre, like "Trainspotting" for the "kitchen-sink" film, "28 Days Later" for the "zombie" movie, but "Sunshine" has so many echoes of Kubrick's "2001" right down to color schemes, ship designs, POV shots, "Icarus's" somewhat fussy computer behavior, freeze-frames in vague situations and close-up eye shots that "A Space Odyssey" is never too far from his frame (Murphy even has a slight resemblance to Keir Dullea). The dynamic of the crew is right out of Scott's "Alien," and the denoument is subject to interpretation (after the "multiple endings" debacle of "28 Days Later"). One also suspects that to secure a rating, or due to some preview-audience's expressed discomfort, some make-up effects have been toned down to near-imperceptibility. But, by and large, its a fascinating excercise in a genre that, if it asks too much of a leap of faith from its audience, can become laughable. "Sunshine" is far from that. It's always a little bit exhilarating to see a sci-film that obeys the laws of orbital mechanics, knows the dangers of space-travel (where math can be fatal), and doesn't have one ray-gun.
Best to see it on a big screen, it's full of little details that won't translate on video.
"Sunshine" is a Matinee for a rainy day. Bring some sun-block.
* in fact, it's a bit scary how many little ties to "2001" there are. Why, you'll even see a black monolith or three in this film.
** In his acceptance of the D.W. Griffith Award from the Director's Guild in 1999 Kubrick evoked the Icarus story to talk about D.W. Griffith's rise and fall in the film business. "I always felt the message of the 'Icarus' story wasn't "Don't fly too high," but, rather, "Do a better job on the wax and feathers!" You can see that speech here.