Sci-fi cinema is all the rage right now, but when Danny Boyle released Sunshine back in 2007 there was a noticeable void of good sci-fi films. Back then I caught the film in our local theater and was properly amazed at Boyle's proficiency in a genre that wasn't really his own. But that was 10 years ago and I was wondering whether Sunshine would still carry that same impact. Luckily the film held its own and in my opinion it still stands as one of the best post-2000 sci-fi films out there.
Even though Boyle had little to no prior experiencing making sci-fi films, he is a prime genre director, so maybe it's not all that surprising that he managed to crank out such a wonderful film with such deceptive ease. He pulled a very similar trick a couple of years earlier, when he injected some new life into the British horror scene with 28 Days Later. With Boyle it's not so much about the genre he's working in, it's about the way he approaches his films.
One of the things that still draws me to Sunshine is the sleek execution of its sci-fi elements. It's not the dark and gritty dystopian vision of space travel that Alien brought forth, nor is it the near-future with slight sci-fi touches that is currently occupying much of the sci-fi space. Sunshine is a proper space flick, with plenty of futuristic elements that combine futuristic aesthetics with functional improvements. While sci-fi may be back in vogue, films like that are still quite rare.
The plot is pretty simple. We follow an international space crew on their way to our dying sun. With them they carry a huge, experimental bomb that is meant to kickstart the sun back into first gear, a last resort attempt with little to no chance of survival for the crew of the mission itself, but when effective will give human kind a fighting chance. Needless to say, the mission isn't going as planned and as they get closer to their target the crew is forced to pull some crazy tricks in order to complete the mission.
Boyle has always been a very visual director, slightly ahead of the curve. Still Sunshine is looking incredibly slick and polished even by his standards. The CG is up to par, the use of color is spectacular and the editing is clean and sharp. Boyle finds room for a little experimentation too, while making sure that it remains a clean and accessible genre film. Visually there's just a very nice balance between author and genre going on, elevating it above basic genre fare but still allowing for a broader audience.
Boyle's films also tend to benefit from above average sound design and Sunshine definitely isn't an exception. Some of the most impressive scenes in the film are set to a superb mix of ambient and more classic film sounds. It's a soundtrack that brings out the best in the visuals and aids in creating all-encompassing moments of wonder that pull you right into the film. It's not really unexpected for a Boyle film, but the execution is flawless and an example for many other directors.
The cast is also a real asset to the film. It's not often that you see an international group of actors like this brought together, but the mix of talent gives the film an extra edge. With people like Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne and Chris Evans on board, there's enough range in the crew members without it feeling overly forced or checkboxey. There are no weak links and even though I felt Murphy and Yeoh jump out the most, that might just be because prior preference on my side.
While Sunshine has all the marks of a core sci-fi film, the latter third drifts off into horror territory. There's a little Event Horizon in there, but with a much better director keeping it together. Still, not everyone will appreciate the shift in genres, especially as things become a lot more fantastical near the end of the film. It's a sprawling finale and I felt Boyle did an amazing job constructing the ending for the film, but it's still clearly too much for some people. That said, I feel that if you prepare yourself for the genre switch it shouldn't have too much of an overall impact.
Sunshine is a superb example of how genre cinema can be elevated when the hand of an author is added to the mix, though ever so slightly. It's not as freaky or out there as Beyond the Black Rainbow, it's still retaining its commercial appeal, but it's clearly not just a simple genre effort either. The film looks amazing, sounds great and has an impressive cast. Danny Boyle did an amazing job molding everything into an impressive whole, which is why the film still holds up 10 years after release.