Set 50 years in the future, Sunshine steals a plot from camp disaster movies like The Core and Armageddon, but takes the other route in its approach. There are no dooming disaster scenes, nor is it played that way. The movie starts off with the crew of Icarus II, the spaceship carrying astronauts and scientists given a seemingly impossible mission... to deliver a cargo of thermonuclear bomb, pooled from every nuke-head on Earth, hoping to re-ignite the dying sun. The premise is a reach, for sure, but it's hardly the focus of the story.
It's refreshing to see a space movie that culls a lot of its tension only from the humans instead of some computer malfunction (no offense to HAL) or a sudden asteroid field. When Icarus II eventually fouls up, as it must for this to be a thriller, it's because of simple human error. Sunshine goes to great lengths to show how imperfect we are as people; how petty, weak and inattentive we can be when we get too arrogant and comfortable with our abilities. The movie's protagonist, Capa (Cillian Murphy), is neither heroic nor that much likable-in fact, he's quite effeminate-just trying his best not to buckle under the enormous pressure of saving the world.
The big looming villain of the film is claustrophobia and paranoia. Cabin fever sets in, pitting the crew members against each other over the smallest¿$� û things, like using the video message booth for too long. In its third act, Sunshine develops a slasher-movie moment where there is an actual villain stalking the crew, which could have been very lame, but it's consistent with the film's most basic theme: humanity demands conflict, and if there isn't any, they will create it themselves. Director Danny Boyle managed to gain a lot of mileage from exploring the unavoidable drama between these people, which is what makes Sunshine so compelling.
By the by, the ship is named Icarus II because ten years prior, the first Icarus was lost in space during the same mission. It is a mysterious signal from the thought-dead crew of Icarus I that presents the crew of Icarus II with a huge dilemma on how to proceed; and soon enough new dilemmas keep presenting themselves, which heighten the drama even more. You're trapped in a steel tomb, floating in a barren vacuum, and you have millions of lives depending on you... it's not an easy job being heroes, and Sunshine's ensemble cast (Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, Hiroyuki Sanada, to name a few) does a magnificent job portraying the different facets of human reaction when faced with this task, from the strongest to the weakest.
On a more elevated platform, Sunshine's most ambitious theme is something that is usually absent or handled hamfisted-ly in disaster flicks, which is the involvement of God. Sunshine discusses it not religiously, but metaphysically and universally. Is mankind worth saving? In the vastness of the universe, do we even matter? There's a wonderful irony in how the crew's psychiatrist (Cliff Curtis) proves to be the weakest in resisting the beauty of creation, getting addicted to exposing himself to direct sunlight and obsessing over what is really behind all that light. The crew of Icarus I failed their mission because they could not satisfyingly answer the ultimate question: if God wants the sun to die and therefore killing mankind, who are we to try and stop it?
On top of all this, Sunshine is simply a gorgeous movie. Even in the confines of one spaceship, the film still provides a flurry of captivating images. Coupled with an impressive soundtrack, they blend together into a film that is euphorically moody and mesmerizing, the kind we haven't seen in a long while in space-based sci-fi. When the radiant sun hypnotizes the crew with its beauty, it's hard not to join them.