The sci-fi thriller Sunshine reunites versatile British director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Millions) with screenwriter Alex Garland and producer Andrew Macdonald, both of whom last collaborated with him on 28 Days Later . . . . That film was one of those lucky instances when a gifted filmmaker comes to a genre fresh and brings to it such powerful ideas that he leaves his thumbprint (as Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining). Released in the UK about a year after the unsolved anthrax attacks in New York and Washington D.C., 28 Days Later . . . tapped into the uneasy zeitgeist with its kinetic, Romero-esque story of a “rage virus” escaping from a research lab and sweeping across London with terrifying speed. Sunshine does for sci-fi what 28 Days Later . . . did for the zombie movie–its tale about a manned space mission to the sun preys on our growing fear of obliteration as we confront global warming.

On a literal level Sunshine contradicts the prevailing climate-change scenario–the year is 2057, part of the sun has gone out, and the earth is engulfed in perpetual winter. But on a visceral level, no other film I’ve seen has made such a palpable on-screen presence of the sun’s deadly heat and blinding light. The eight international astronauts of Icarus II have been sent to reignite the dead area with a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan, and as the movie opens they’re approaching Mercury, whose surface temperature can exceed 800 degrees Fahrenheit. “In movies, normally you use darkness to create fear and terror,” Boyle recently told MTV’s Kurt Loder. “But [this movie] is based on light. . . . We tried to rob the audience of the colors orange and red. We didn’t have any of those colors inside the ship. And then when you went outside the ship, you suddenly felt all this orange light.” As the ship’s heat shields deflect the sun’s rays, they whine like stressed metal.

For Boyle, mankind’s relationship with the sun passes from the physical to the metaphysical. He kept reminding his actors that “every bit of you is just a bit of exploded star,” and in a promo clip on the movie’s Web site he articulates his curiosity about “what happens to your mind when you meet the creator of all things in the universe, which for some people is a spiritual, religious idea, but for other people it is a purely scientific idea.” The first astronaut Boyle introduces is Searle, the medical officer (Cliff Curtis of Whale Rider), who’s in the ship’s observation room watching a wide-screen image of a roiling orange orb that represents only 2 percent of the sun’s actual light. Mesmerized by the light’s power, he asks the ship’s computer (voiced, HAL-like, by Chipo Chung) to give him as much as he can safely view, a moment of terrifying brightness, and later conveys its spiritual effects to his crew members. I try to avoid spoilers when reviewing such a suspenseful movie, but I will reveal that when Searle later chooses to meet his maker, he does so by exposing himself to an overdose of sunlight.

Buckminster Fuller handed environmentalists a striking metaphor back in 1963 when he popularized the expression “Spaceship Earth,” and its effectiveness must have been reinforced by sci-fi movies that had begun to acknowledge such phenomena as zero gravity, atmospheric pressure, and extreme temperatures in space, conversely treating the spaceship as a little planet. Sunshine falls into that tradition: Icarus II is a self-contained, self-perpetuating ecosystem sustained by a large oxygen garden several stories high, a verdant chamber with hanging vines, gently drizzling rain, and lazily spinning turbines set into the walls. Tended by the ship’s biologist, the pacific Corazon, it supplies the crew with oxygen and fresh food, and when it’s compromised, the entire mission is endangered.

For all its celestial musing, Sunshine is expertly plotted and paced, the science driving the narrative as one complication leads to another. The crew intercepts a message from Icarus I, which disappeared seven years earlier on an identical mission, and discovers it’s a mere 15,000 miles away. After the physicist supervising the bomb (Cillian Murphy) concludes that they’ll have a better chance of accomplishing their mission if they collect Icarus I and its bomb, the ship’s resolute captain (Hiroyuki Sanada) orders the crew to change course. But the navigation officer foolishly does so without altering the incline of the ship’s heat shields, and as the temperature skyrockets, the oxygen garden bursts into flame. As their supply of breathable air dwindles, the astronauts confront the reality that some of them will have to be sacrificed for Icarus II to deliver its nuclear payload and save the earth.

Boyle visualizes the movie as a contrast between extreme light and extreme darkness, and the dark center of the movie is the tense, Alien-esque sequence in which three of the astronauts, encased in clunky golden space suits, board and explore the empty hull of Icarus I. It feels like a dead planet: the chambers are pitch black, the surfaces coated with white dust (80 percent skin particles, one astronaut points out). In one of Boyle’s most frightening effects, brightly colored close-ups of the dead astronauts, taken from a group photo that hangs in one chamber, flicker in the darkness like ghosts. A recording left by the captain of Icarus I mysteriously activates, and his message is a lesson in religious fatalism: “When He chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God.” Of course the whole point of the mission is to seize control of fate, presuming to alter the sun itself so that mankind can survive.

The movie’s most compelling conflict is between the ship’s physicist, Capa, and the engineer, Mace, a military brat with a highly developed sense of duty (Chris Evans, best known as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies). Mace challenges Capa’s verdict that they should retrieve the extra bomb, and when events spiral out of control, he won’t let anyone forget who’s responsible. Yet all eight astronauts are powerfully motivated by their responsibility to humankind, even when it means suicide. Screenwriter Alex Garland has said he was preoccupied with “the idea that it could get to a point when the entire planet’s survival rests on the shoulders of one man.” That idea gives Sunshine a political kick that’s subtle but welcome, because our planet may never survive its changing relationship with the sun unless a multitude of people shoulder the burden.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sunshine.