When you think about the best Danny Boyle movies, a few that immediately come to mind: Trainspotting. 28 Days Later. Slumdog Millionaire (which him an Academy Award for Best Director). In his 30-year career, Boyle has never allowed himself to be pigeonholed by a genre or even medium - he famously directed a production of Frankenstein for the Royal National Theatre in 2011, for which Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller traded off the roles of doctor and creature, and even tackled the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics. The man has made something for just about everyone, from thrillers to horror to biopics, feel good films to movies that will keep you up at night. Oh, and he also made the best space movie ever: Sunshine.
Released in 2007, Sunshine very quietly turned 10 in 2017, as good a reason as any to revisit and unpack this modern classic. It didn't get the critical or popular response it deserved upon release (it didn't even make back it's $40 million production budget during its theatrical release, let alone whatever was spent on marketing), and, sadly, it often goes unmentioned in discussions of the best sci-fi movies ever and best space movies ever (if you're wondering what the difference is, Gravity is a space movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a sci-fi movie; a lot of great sci-fi, such as Blade Runner or Children of Men, is mostly earthbound, but space movies can be sci-fi movies, if they take place in space).
Yet make no mistake: Sunshine is a great sci-fi movie.
While there are a lot of great movies that take place in space, ones with aliens and treks and wars, Sunshine stands out from the pack with it's unique science, gorgeous design, incredible casting, so many more reasons. If you're a doubter or a hater or just unsure of what you think about the movie, this list is here to tell you why Sunshine is the best space movie ever made. If you haven't watched it yet, what are you waiting for? You don't want this list to spoil all the fun for you, do you?
In 2000, Danny Boyle made The Beach, which was adapted from Alex Garland's novel of the same name. The book is a terrific beach read (no pun intended), though the film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, failed to leave a mark on audiences. Luckily, the pair didn't let that deter them from their budding partnership. They worked together again in 2002, on horror classic 28 Days Later, with Garland penning the screenplay, Boyle directing, and Cillian Murphy playing the lead in what was his breakout role.
As you surely know, 28 Days Later turned the zombie genre on its head, working as a political parable and cautionary tale; at the end of the world, the people to be afraid of aren't always the undead ones (it was released a few months before the first Walking Dead comic was published, in case you're wondering). Together, Boyle and Garland have a knack for elevating genre fare, which they did to the sci-fi and space genres with Sunshine three years after 28 Days Later arrived in cinemas and also starred Murphy.
Murphy proves, in both films, to be a captivating lead, drawing audiences in and steering them through the emotional ups and downs of survival. Both films have great dangers - zombies, a burning ball of gas - but choose to explore the human side of the experience; they examine the ingenuity, bravery, and even savagery that the threat of extinction inspires in people.
Movies that take place in space often treat it as the final frontier - a place of discovery, of new planets and life forms and reaching the unreachable. Or they envision a future with an intergalactic community, where traveling between planets is analogous to hopping a flight to a different country. Plenty of space movies include stars, but very few focus on our star: the center of our solar system, the celestial body that makes life on our planet possible. The Sun. And this makes Sunshine's premise completely unique.
Even the opening of the film, in which the Fox Searchlight title sequence runs in reverse to end on the emerging Sun, exposes the film's focus. Sunshine takes place in 2057. The Sun is dying, the Earth is entering a solar winter as a result. The film focuses on the crew of the Icarus II, a ship tasked with delivering a stellar bomb into the heart of the Sun as a last ditch effort to kick-start it and save humanity.
But the Sun is no mere destination - it's a character, perhaps even a God, looming ever larger outside the ship. There's no way to predict the success of the mission, because time and space distort the closer Icarus II gets to its destination (as demonstrated with freezing frames and jumpy edits during the film's climax). Scientifically, the Sun is nearly unknowable. The source of life for our planet is also the greatest threat to the crew's existence - hope, fear, and mystery, all in one burning gaseous ball. And it is absolutely gorgeous to behold.
In the 1942 horror classic Cat People, director Val Lewton used shadows and the power of suggestion to imply the presence of the titular kitty-folk, instead of showing them outright. When budget is a concern, horror movies have long fallen on the trick of wrapping monsters in darkness and letting the imagination of the audience fill in the blanks. And that would seem like a natural technique to employ in space movies - after all, space itself is just a vast, dark, enveloping canvas.
Yes, Sunshine appropriately employs tricks of light to the same effect. If darkness is the ultimate absence, then light is the ultimate presence. It fills, it becomes, it overwhelms. And the "monster" of Sunshine, Pinbacker, is cloaked in distorting light the way any other creature would be shrouded in shadow.
You'd be forgiven for thinking Sunshine isn't about space, but rather eyeballs. There are shots of the ship approaching the Sun that look just like a fiery iris, with the Icarus II as the dark pupil in the center. This is in part because the film fetishizes the act of observation, with long lingering close-ups of eyes taking in the breathtaking wonder of space. Everyone knows staring at the Sun is a big no-no, but it's impossible not to when the Sun is basically all around you.
Luckily the observation room windows of Icarus II are modulated - at one point, still millions of miles from the Sun, the maximum safe amount of light is said to be 30 seconds at 3.1% of the Sun's full strength. Bump it up to 4% and you'd suffer retinal damage.
The eyeball close-ups serve another purpose as well: heightening claustrophobia. The camera can't seem to get any distance from the crew inside the confines of the ship. Even the goldspace suits eschew the classic glass dome-style helmets, and instead feature a dome with just a narrow slit for an eye hole. The range of vision is narrowed to a point, but cameras inside the helmet give the crew (and viewers) an up-close look at the sweaty faces of the people inside the suits.