Ten years later, ‘Sunshine’ remains one of the bleakest and most beautiful sci-fi movies ever made

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Tech’s ‘give back’ moment

The first time I saw Sunshine, it was in a movie theater packed with awkward men (in my memory, the audience was at least 90 percent male). When the movie ended, my friend and I spent an extra 10 minutes on the floor, trying to find his misplaced glasses.

Despite the sub-optimal viewing conditions, I remember feeling genuinely thrilled by what I’d seen. Sunshine, it seemed to me, was pointing to a promising new direction for science fiction film.

It was the second collaboration between director Danny Boyle, screenwriter Alex Garland and star Cillian Murphy. Their first, 28 Days Later, had been a surprising success. In addition to reinventing and revitalizing the zombie movie, it showed how low-budget, handheld filmmaking could be used to blend science fiction and horror in a way that was both emotionally compelling and scary as hell.

And although it was more science fictional than 28 Days Later, with a larger budget, Sunshine still seemed very much like a spiritual successor, bringing the same indie approach to outer space.

Sadly, any hopes about the film’s broader impact quickly faded. After its release in the summer of 2007, Sunshine underperformed globally, making only $32 million (compared to the $85 million earned by 28 Days Later), with a paltry $3.6 million in the U.S. One of the actors, future Captain America Chris Evans, started bringing it up in interviews as an example of how no one had seen his “good” movies. And while Boyle, Garland and Murphy have each had their subsequent successes, they haven’t made another film together.

Still, Sunshine may be the movie I’ve rewatched most in the decade since then. Usually, when I mention it in conversation, people just stare at me blankly, but once in a while, someone’s eyes will light up and they’ll say, “Oh my God, I love that movie!” (One of the greatest moments of my life was briefly geeking out about it with Oscar Isaac, who auditioned for a role in Sunshine and was subsequently cast in Garland’s Ex Machina.)

The movie seems to be remembered fondly outside my social circle, too — it was included in a recent “10 years later” screening series at my neighborhood movie theater, and it just appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of the best sci-fi movies of the 21st century (at least 30 spots too low, but still).

I’m particularly reminded of Sunshine every time I watch another movie about space exploration and colonization. I don’t know whether the makers of Interstellar, Gravity and Alien Covenant were directly influenced, but they ask many of the same questions — not quite as smartly or effectively, but usually with a bigger budget and more impressive financial returns.

Sunshine Cillian Murphy

In Sunshine‘s case, the astronauts are tasked with a mission of enormous importance — our sun is dying, and the spaceship Icarus II is carrying a bomb designed to restart it. Over the course of the film, Cillian Murphy’s Robert Capa and a crew of international actors are forced by bad luck and their own mistakes to make impossibly difficult decisions. Again and again, they confront the question of how much their lives are worth in the context of a mission that will literally decide the fate of humanity.

The film’s final act is its weakest — without giving away major spoilers, I can say that the Icarus II eventually stumbles across the abandoned Icarus I, and disappointingly, the movie detours into a nonsensical horror plot.

Luckily, the story finds its footing again, right before the end. And all throughout, it remains a source of striking imagery. Even more than the plot and its big questions, what I’ve carried with me for the past 10 years are individual moments, like the quiet beauty of Mercury passing in front of the sun, or the sight of Michelle Yeoh weeping while the ship burns around her.

More than anything, I’ll remember a character telling Murphy, “Hey Capa, we’re all stardust” — a statement that’s all the more moving for being delivered casually, seconds before Capa makes a terrifying leap into the unknown. (He’ll have to make another, similar leap before the movie is over.)

I’ll risk one more spoiler: As the movie goes on, the crew of the Icarus II becomes increasingly convinced that they’re going to die out there, millions of miles from home. More than in any science fiction movie I’ve seen — maybe any movie — Sunshine‘s characters face this knowledge with a kind of fatalistic grace. They don’t pretend to be anything other than doomed, but they carry on anyway.

That grace seems worth remembering, and celebrating, as Sunshine turns 10. It seems increasingly important as we move into a turbulent future — and toward the individual endings that we know are coming.