Danny Boyle tiptoes the thin line between homage and rip-off with Sunshine, a sci-fi conundrum that would have the Star Child of 2001: A Space Odyssey scratching his head.
Boyle must realize how many callbacks to memorable science fiction flicks Sunshine includes: lost space missions (Alien, Event Horizon); the onboard computer controlling lives (2001's HAL 9000); the greenhouse effects of Silent Running; Soylent Green's virtual paradise room; fatal spacewalks (2001 again); and the idea that "It is not our place to challenge God," used by too many flicks to mention.
However, the way Boyle uses these touchstones places Sunshine closer to originality than to plagiarism. Though the movie begins familiarly, it concludes by being equally puzzling, leaving our senses overloaded and our minds fumbling for answers. But all the clues are there, buried in casual tech-speak and actions that aren't underlined.
Whether viewers will stay long enough to collect them, or not be distracted by Boyle's brilliant visuals, is the question.
Sunshine is set 50 years in the future, when the sun is dying. A space mission called Icarus was launched with a massive nuclear bomb to reignite our closest star before Earth freezes to death. That spaceship disappeared somewhere around Mercury. Seven years later, Icarus II was sent to complete the task.
The ship's diverse crew doesn't appear especially heroic; only the pensive pilot Mace (Chris Evans, Fantastic Four) looks built for derring-do that won't be done in Sunshine's slow-dread orbit. The bomb's trigger man, a physicist named Capa (Cillian Murphy), is nearly spineless. Other scientists - plus a psychologist (Cliff Curtis) for emotional therapy - are losing their purpose.
Then Icarus II picks up a distress signal from the first mission. How can that be, after so much time? Investigating will hinder the sun-spark mission, and human error will compound those problems. Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland devise every scientific step so clinically deadpan that quibbling about logic and physics is worthless.
The less revealed about Icarus II's mission, the better. Sunshine deserves to remain mysterious. Boyle made a movie that compels viewers to reach for information, then spend time sorting it out. That's kind of special in the summertime.
A lack of characterization speeds along his process; this crew likely doesn't have much off-duty personality, anyway. Icarus II is the character we're closely watching, inside its claustrophobic hull and outside, where massive gold shields reflect incendiary sun rays and the bomb awaits its target. That is, if everything goes according to plan.
Sunshine mesmerizes with its blazing images, refracted lighting and shifting focus. Boyle borrows from other movies to create a uniquely sensual experience, evidenced by a bold climactic twist on 2001's psychedelic star voyage. He certainly isn't Stanley Kubrick, but the late master might applaud.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Benedict Wong, Hiroyuki Sanada, Mark Strong
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Rating: R; violence, profanity
Running time: 107 min.