Saving the world has been a major theme in story-telling as far back as stories have been recorded, starting with cuneiform scratched into mud tablets well before Babylon rose. It’s also been a part of huge cinematic blockbusters like 2012 (dumb as a sackful of stunned baby rabbits, but I still watched it and even own it on Blu)(fun is often far from great), as well as the more universally beloved Star Wars.
The need to save the world is also the plot of Sunshine, in the most explicit way. Our Sun is dying and a last ditch mission is sent from Earth, with the simple objective of jump-starting the engine of the star by exploding every bit of fissionable material left on the earth in the heart of the Sun.
Why is it Great?
Where do I start? The stunning visuals (and amazing SFX)? The immersive sound that puts you in the middle of the spacecraft? The eerie soundtrack that sucks you in? (Certain passages of the music are so powerful they’ve been used repeatedly in trailers and other films) How about just the story of eight flawed humans, who are the best we can muster, with the burden of saving not only themselves, but everyone and every single thing they love? To say nothing of the fact that it’s just Bat-Shit Krazy (and I mean BSK with the greatest possible respect and affection).
The film is directed by Danny Boyle (now better known in the States for Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours) and he does an honestly masterful job of conveying the strain, the fear, and the isolation of being 60 million miles from earth and having the hubris to set off a bomb on the surface of the sun.
When things begin to go wrong through human oversight and pride, some characters crack under the pressure, while others (especially Chris Evans, pre-Captain America, in a part that probably convinced people he really could act) are refined down to their diamond-hard essentials of purpose. As the butterfly effect of one mistake cascades into another, Boyle torques up the tension with scenes of horrific sacrifice that are unlike anything you’ve ever seen (and which are largely gore free, focusing instead on the emotional cost of the choice).
And then it gets really challenging, but the film is never anything less than intelligent and the film never thinks the viewer is stupid, either.
Why Have I Never Heard of it?
Partly (if not entirely) because the marketing was lousy: how does one make “Save the Sun, Save the World” into a pithy poster? Add to that the lack of marquee value of any of the leads at the time, the limited US release, and we have another MMIA (Movie Missing in Action).
The film is visually absolutely stunning. It’s well worth a BluRay purchase on the visuals and effects alone. The sequences of the ship Icarus in space are splendidly done, as are space walks that are incredibly tense. As beautiful as the filming is, the sound design and soundtrack are equally memorable and immersive.
The only reason really good films stick with you is because they moved you emotionally. It could be as simple and visceral as the juvenile gasp of glee watching cars defy gravity (and logic) in the Fast and Furious franchise or it could be as sobering as rooting for one man try to do what’s right by his family and for his society in To Kill a Mockingbird. Sunshine has something of both elements. The thrill, the terror, the effort of trying to survive in space and finally, the heavy burden of utter commitment to duty, no matter the cost.