50 years in the future, the sun has started to mysteriously die, leaving the Earth a rapidly cooling wasteland and spelling the imminent end of humanity. The crew of the sun shield-protected starship Icarus II make their way through space to deliver their payload - a monstrous bomb that will reignite the sun's core.
But much more awaits them. It's written into science fiction lore, really. No matter how hard you try to make things safe in space, something will always go wrong. There are just too many frailties; metal, fuel, food, oxygen and sanity. There's always going to be a stuck airlock, a failed oxygen system or a psychotic crew member.
Some space movies - even some based on real life (Apollo 13) - are about nothing more than the tendency of space travel to turn every tiny glitch into a life threatening disaster. And we're not talking about the world of the Millenium Falcon or Enterprise here, either. We're talking about the real world where space travel is a dark, claustrophobic pursuit, pressure searing the nerves as surely as the people you're stuck with for months on end. So it is with Danny Boyle's Sunshine, the best science fiction film for a very long time.
As realistic as it is thrilling, awe-inspiring and psychological, Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland have taken some very accepted space movie conventions and breathed fresh life into every one. It's the realism that strikes you the most.
Yes, it's exactly how you'd imagine a mission to re-enflame the sun would look in fifty years time, but that's not the sort of realism we mean. It's realistic in a way the Star Wars prequels weren't. George Lucas had his actors running around blue and green rooms so he could paint thrilling backdrops in later.
Boyle's vision of outer space is more like Das Boot - fitting as the cast and key crew toured a nuclear submarine in Scotland as part of their preparation. The eight unfortunate souls live in dank steel rooms with only the smell of each others frustrations and fears for company.
The Icarus II is an enormous spindle with spinning modules attached to a solar shield miles across, and the interiors are designed and coloured like a cramped navy ship that's seen months of use, frayed patience and old sweat having seeped into the walls. For a director who started with the very real world of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, Boyle has as commanding a sense of visuals as any other science fiction 'branded' director working today.
Firstly, there's plenty of CG, but It's not the 'look at me' CG of a tentpole adventure film. It's a tool to get the best picture on the screen and set the tone for the story being told. Technically, It's seamlessly executed and you'll never be surer you're passing from the explosively lit front of a spacecraft to the darkness-enshrouded rear of towers and blinking lights spinning hauntingly through space.
But there's much more to the visuals than just great effects. Boyle hardly ever simply points and shoots. Many sequences and even individual frames are full of lighting, focus and depth effects that make the whole thing feel even more surreal, a visual metaphor for the dreamlike state the crew are in after so much stress and so little activity. In his visual language, Boyle owes much more to 2001 than any other space opera. Space travel is a perilous thing but oddly beautiful, like a dance, and Boyle gets it pitch perfect.
It would also be easy to say he gets some excellent performances out of his cast, particularly Chris 'Human Torch' Evans, who's never shown such presence on screen before. But the real kudos for emotional resonance goes to Alex Garland's lean, razor-sharp script, which leaves out as much as it includes. When a small number of the crew sit around a table voting on whether to murder one of their colleagues to conserve oxygen, there's no rousing speech about how 'if we do that it goes against the reason we're out here'. It's all in a single look.
For a movie so strongly grounded in scientific and engineering reality, "Sunshine" also has a high emotional intelligence quotient, and the climax also veers into metaphysics and a little symbolism. But don't let that deter you if it sounds a little too cerebral. Rarely do we get to enjoy such complex, adult characters, realistic dialogue and stunning imagery in the fantastic genres.