Charge of the Light Brigade 

Sunshine makes epic-adventure poetry out of a sci-fi collage.

Cillian Murphy confirms that, yes, the sun is still on.
  • Cillian Murphy confirms that, yes, the sun is still on.

In the observation room of the spacecraft Icarus II, passengers sit on a bench in front of a large, rectangular screen displaying a view of what lies ahead. A seething orb of gas and flame burns in the void. Icarus II is en route to the sun.

It's the year 2057. Approximately five billion years ahead of schedule, the sun is starting to die. In a desperate attempt to keep the lights on, global resources have been directed toward a solution, presumably with input from Al Gore and the writers of Armageddon. A team of experts will deposit a bomb the size of Manhattan inside the fading light, giving birth (theoretically) to a vigorous new star. They've been down this road: The first Icarus expedition failed and then vanished. Enter Icarus II, a fresh crew, and the convolutions of Sunshine, a heady science fiction written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle.

As it rockets toward the fate of mankind, Sunshine alerts all passengers that they have boarded a first-class head trip. Big Questions are posed. (What is man's role in the universe? What happens when you stare into the abyss? Is Chris Evans hotter with long hair or short?) Ethical Quandaries are dramatized. (How do you reframe the basic tenets of civilization when faced with its imminent extinction?) There will be ghosts in the machine, signs and miracles, manifestations of the intergalactic sublime. And there will be a rampage by what appears to be Freddy Krueger in the throes of one seriously gnarly God complex.

Ideas scintillate over the surface of Sunshine without ever quite igniting, but at least the movie sparkles. What it doesn't do is cohere. Action flick, sci-fi thriller, metaphysical adventure, incoherent allegory, ethical hypothesis, and horror film all at once, this mad multitasker has the agenda of a dozen movies. Problem is, it's all too obvious which ones.

Sunshine is a nearly perfect pastiche, with every computer glitch, hazardous space walk, navigational gambit, and act of mad heroism traceable to the sci-fi canon. These nods to sci-fi are slyly acknowledged when the crew locates and boards the mysteriously vacant Icarus. "Afraid we might get picked off by aliens one by one?" they tease each other -- and us. That's good for a laugh, but how are we supposed to take them seriously, when this is almost exactly what happens later in the picture?

Somehow, Sunshine works despite feeling overfamiliar and overambitious. It crescendos with a legitimate sense of wonder, thanks to a luminous and uncanny score. Cillian Murphy heads an ensemble graced with vivid physical presence (Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh). It's not much as a movie of ideas, but it makes an evocative contribution to the malfunction-adventure drama.

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