Sci-fi psychology rather than starship heroics

2008-10-02 08:04

THE Sun is dying. It's a pretty standard sci-fi concept, and so is the idea that humans could do something about it.

In this film by Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) and writer Alex Garland (The Beach), it is not so much the science of the endeavour that interests us, but the psychology of the participants. The film starts as the spaceship Icarus II, carrying a huge nuclear bomb, nears the Sun. The crew of eight must deliver the device, then get out of the way quickly. The bomb will re-energise the Sun, saving Earth, which is in the grip of a long and very cold winter.

On board, the crew are feeling the strain - arguments, fights, odd behaviour. They enter a dead zone in which the Sun's forces block out communication with the Earth. Then they hear something unexpected - a signal from Icarus I, the craft sent seven years ago to do the same job, the fate of which has never been known. It seems intact, and is quite nearby. They decide to go and see what has happened - and collect that ship's device (we are told that all the fissile material on Earth has been mined for this last attempt - there can be no next time).

The change in course sets off a cascade of events that test the crew's resourcefulness and character. As one thing after another goes wrong, success seems further and further away - and the reason why Icarus I failed raises some interesting questions.

This film does several things right, or at least differently than they might be done in an American film.

First, there is no elaborate back story. The beginning of the project is not detailed. We are told nothing about the participants, we simply have to take what we see: crew of eight: two women, six men, three Asians, three whites, mostly young. Second, the science, while not foregrounded, has some interesting elements - the craft has an “oxygen garden” in which plants are grown to provide food and oxygen to breathe, the only way a long mission could survive. Third, and most important, you don't have the sense throughout that there will be a happy ending, partly because we haven't been introduced to those waiting for the heroes back on Earth.

The film isn't based on big stars, and the characters are realistic to a degree. The most recognisable is Irishman Cillian Murphy, who plays physicist Capa, the man who built the device. His saucer-like blue eyes don't really shout “scientist”, but he isn't a Hollywood heroic, having played offbeat, creepy characters before (most notably the hitman in Red Eye).

The idea that a mission like restarting the Sun might raise interesting speculations in the participants adds a layer of psychological intrigue to Sunshine that helps one look past the improbabilities inherent in the genre.

Sunshine is pretty gripping entertainment and not quite as ludicrous as some of its ilk (like The Core, or Armageddon). ***

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