In a normal monster movie, the creature comes stalking the cast, creeping up and taking them out one by one. In Sunshine, the latest from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland (Boyle's partner on The Beach and 28 Days Later), the cast comes stalking the creature, but it still has the upper hand at all times, and it has no problem picking them off: It's impossible to outthink or outfight the sun.
Cillian Murphy stars as the key member of "a collection of astronauts and scientists" on a mission to drop "a bomb with the mass of Manhattan Island" into the sun to rekindle its dying core. Murphy's multi-culti but otherwise generic spaceship crew (including Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, and Fantastic Four's Chris Evans) is Earth's last hope, but a series of accidents, miscalculations, and twists diminish that hope to a thin thread. In many ways, Sunshine is a been-there-done-that cast-attrition thriller: Alien with an exterior monster instead of an interior one, Event Horizon with better effects and less gore, Pitch Black with the contrast turned way up. The cast members make wry jokes about getting eliminated one at a time, horror-movie style, but they still follow all the horror-movie procedures, even duly splitting up in a dangerous, unknown situation. It's like they've gracefully accepted that they're just hitting a series of predestined, genre-mandated marks.
But Sunshine is still exceptionally intense. It must have been a hard sell; the first half is all hushed exposition and pseudo-science, and the initial crises involve a lengthy description about a 1.1-degree change in vector approach, and lines like "I can't lower the mainframe panels!" On paper, it's a horror movie for dour physicists. But the paper version wouldn't hint at the aggressively showy visuals, or the punishing sound effects and music, set at a volume fit to blow viewers back into their seats like the guy in the old Maxell cassette ad. Boyle overwhelms the screen with extreme close-ups of eyes, with light that hurts to look at, with lovely compositions in which the sun looms over Cillian's tiny ship like a Titan over a flea. All of Boyle's usual tricks—fast montages, subliminal frames, shaky-cam shots, sudden zooms—go into making Sunshine as unsettling and overwhelming as possible, to give the audience that sense of the vast, terrifying, implacable force hanging just outside the ship's hull. As narrative, Sunshine is exhausting and unsatisfying, with too many obvious plot flaws and too much about its crew and story left unexplored. But as a pure cinematic experience, it's exhilaratingly, brutally beautiful.