15 years ago, this classic sci-fi film was completely slept on at the box office
It featured a pre-Captain America Chris Evans, a typically great Cillian Murphy, one of the best soundtrack moments in history and a highly divisive final act...
Hey kids, remember Sunshine?
You might not, considering it was a box office flop, making just under $35 million from a budget of $40 million – and it's worth noting right out of the (star)gate that there are films out there with five times that production budget that don't look anywhere near as visually stunning as this does.
But let's start with its director – Danny Boyle. Maybe the most erratic filmography in the game? Having broken through with darkly comic crime thriller Shallow Grave in 1994, Boyle quickly announced himself as a voice of the '90s in the form of Trainspotting.
A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach registered as early career speed bumps and it wasn't until Boyle tore up the rule book with 2002's low-fi horror 28 Days Later... – shot with an ultra-scuzzy digital finish and boasting fast zombies – that he began to regain some critical steam.
Nobody really remembers 2004's child-friendly Millions so we'll jump ahead to the film that re-teamed Boyle with Cillian Murphy following the Cork actor's breakout lead role in 28 Days Later – and that film is the terrific and criminally under-appreciated Sunshine.
Now, usually when we do these anniversary retrospectives, we tie it to the exact date that the movie was released in Ireland. However, this instance is a little different. We're just going to hold our hands up and confess that we missed the date back in April and instead have opted to celebrate Sunshine in line with the equivalent week of its American release in 2007.
But here's the rub – Sunshine's big North American release arriving three months after its European jaunt gave it the chance to make some serious cash. Alas... the entire domestic take for this release amounted to just $3,675,753. Yikes. In the end, Box Office Mojo lists Sunshine's global take at $34,806,812.
Now, let's get down to the key reasons why Sunshine deserves a lot more respect and viewings than it received at the time.
1. THE PLOT
Every great science fiction film set on a spaceship tends to follow a very simple yet highly effective formula– a crew needs to pull off a vital / mundane / potentially dangerous task or mission. Suddenly, a signal / monster / villain emerges, prompting curiosity and an inevitable unintentional march towards certain doom or, at the very least, significant conflict.
In the case of Sunshine, the crew of the Icarus II (hell of a name, given the circumstances) are dealing with a terrifying scenario – the sun is burning out and one mission to restore it has already failed under mysterious unexplained circumstances – and a very Hollywood solution to that scenario – they need to fire a gigantic stellar bomb into the heart of the sun to literally reignite the thing.
Along the way, that pesky aforementioned signal appears, dividing the team on what they should do and ultimately derailing everything. The 'monster' in this case is the sun itself. As for the villain? We'll get there...
2. THE CAST
Sunshine boasts an excellent and pleasingly diverse cast, populated with recognisable character actors that you believe could indeed perform the specific specialist functions required in this uniquely high-pressure environment.
You've got Cillian Murphy as Capa, the physicist who came up with the bomb – or "payload" as the film regularly refers to it – and thus the most important person on the Icarus II. Prior to his career-elevating turn as Captain America, Chris Evans is terrific as hot-headed but extremely capable mechanical engineer Mace. The always-brilliant Michelle Yeoh lends gravitas to the role of Corazon, the ship's no-nonsense biologist.
Rose Byrne manages to drag the most out of fairly underwritten character Cassie, who serves as pilot of the Icarus II and close friend of Capa. Hiroyuki Sanada, who you'll recognise from the likes of Ringu, LOST, and The Last Samurai, is superb as Kaneda, the ship's captain. Benedict Wong, who would later land his own recurring Marvel role as Wong, has an important part as Trey, the navigator. And then you have Cliff Curtis as the ship's doctor Searle, who may have become dangerously obsessed with the mission's destination point.
You also have a barely-recognisable Mark Strong in the contentious role of Pinbacker, the presumed lost captain of the Icarus I, and with all due respect to Troy Garrity's somewhat cowardly second-in-command Harvey, he can't help but register as the weak link of the overall ensemble.
Seriously, this is one thing that a sci-fi film with a crew of people simply must get right – populate the arena with familiar faces, great actors and relatable human beings. Make them interesting and likeable even when the script lets them down a little – it matters a great deal when things inevitably go very wrong for them. Sunshine's cast nails this.
3. THE MUSIC
John Murphy – no relation to Cillian – has composed music for many a motion picture, boasting the likes of Intermission, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, 28 Days Later, Miami Vice, Kick-Ass, The Suicide Squad and the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 on his CV.
This writer hereby argues that Sunshine is his masterpiece. While he's assisted in places by Underworld and I Am Kloot – Underworld actually improvised an original score based on an early cut of the film before Murphy took over and combined their efforts – the Liverpool musician does an incredible job in taking the viewer (and listener) to a place beyond the stars.
The highlight is obvious but no less mesmerising all these years on, and if you've never seen Sunshine it would still come as a surprise if you've never encountered it. 'Adagio in D Minor' has since popped up in everything from major sporting events to dramatic trailers for numerous Hollywood blockbusters to thoughtful nature programmes to... Love Island.
Hey, why not? It's bloody brilliant and it scores not just one of the strongest moments in Sunshine, but one of the most jaw-dropping sequences in all of science fiction cinema. IT'S JUST SO GODDAMN BEAUTIFUL.
Clip via John Murphy
4. THE AESTHETIC
Sunshine cost $40 million. It looks unbelievable. I refuse to believe it cost that little.
Gosh, it's pretty.
5. THE VERY DIVISIVE FINAL ACT
Talk to anyone who has seen Sunshine and chances are the conversation will quickly turn to the final act. A lot of people do not like how Sunshine concludes. Let's be fair. I can see the argument. I don't agree with the argument, yet I will acknowledge it, Roman Reigns-style.
For the first two acts, Sunshine is a patient, thoughtful science fiction story that, while a wee bit ridiculous, is grounded in complex equations, spirited debate about difficult moral choices, and intriguing human character beats. Even the action sequences have a certain level of restraint to them – yes, even at their most heightened.
Once you hit that final act – SPOILERS to follow here – it all gets pretty crazy. Sunshine essentially turns into a slasher movie as Mark Strong's aforementioned Pinbacker is revealed to be still alive and quite murderous indeed. He manages to find his way onto the Icarus II where he sets about destroying everything – and everyone – on board in a bid to sabotage the mission, due to his belief that the sun is a god that ought to be worshipped rather than tampered with... or something along those lines, anyway.
As such, Sunshine becomes something of a bloody race to the finish as the tension ramps up, characters meet cruel fates and the entire thing concludes in somewhat ambiguous, oddly hopeful fashion.
One thing's for sure – the moment when Pinbacker is revealed to have stowed away is a tremendous piece of business:
Clip via 1YaKo
Also, the very ending is really quite lovely and the Underworld song that kicks off the credits is good for a shot of adrenaline. Screw the haters, it's perfect from start to finish. AND it's under two hours. Result.
Sunshine rules! Please watch it in the dark, on a big screen, with good headphones.
Sunshine is currently available to stream on Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video.