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Remember that old Twilight Zone episode in which the earth and the sun got way too close for comfort? The twist was that the feverish protagonist had actually dreamed the hellish heat wave and our shivering planet was drifting away from the sun instead. Another deep freeze awaits the human race in Sunshine, which imagines that the sun has begun to die billions of years before its expiration date. It's 2057, a close-enough future to keep things familiar yet far enough to allow for certain technological advancements, like the invention of a Manhattan-size bomb powerful enough to jump-start the sun, and a spaceship, Icarus II, that can deliver such a cargo to the star's searing surface.
Guiding what they call "the payload" to its destination is a crew that's somewhere between the scrappy Alien gang and the perfunctory 2001: A Space Odyssey explorers. Icarus II comes equipped with a supercomputer that runs everything imagine, uh, Alien's Mother crossed with 2001's HAL 9000. Sunshine shares other similarities with sci-fi films past (thankfully, beyond some superficial elements, The Core is not among them): the psychological effects of deep-space claustrophobia and the knowledge that there is "literally nothing more important than completing our mission," as engineer Mace (Chris Evans) points out. What individual would jeopardize a quest to ensure survival of the species?
Well, that's why they call it a conflict. We learn in the first five minutes that the ship, which sets sail less than a decade after the failed Icarus I, is Earth's last hope. The eight personalities aboard include aloof physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy), practical biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), and medical officer Searle (Whale Rider's Cliff Curtis), who lingers in Icarus II's observation room, drinking in the approaching sun. The sun's complicated allure is a key Sunshine theme: It's mesmerizing. It creates life. To a scientist, it's God. But it'll fry you alive, especially in space, where the Icarus II's SPF needs are met by a glinting shield covered in gold.
It's certain that director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland are nodding to you-know-which Greek myth about what happens when people fly too close to the sun though mental meltdowns keep pace with literal ones on Sunshine's journey. The pair are probably best known for 28 Days Later, which injected a host of post<\d>Sept. 11 worries into the zombie genre. It's tempting to look for a similar metaphor here, but as befits the film's setting, Sunshine's concerns are far more metaphysical. The doomsday scenario it suggests call it anti<\d>global warming stirs up fears embedded in humanity's DNA. "We might get picked off one by one by aliens!" an Icarus II crew member jokes, but Sunshine's lingering effects dig deeper than any Ridley Scott rip-off. As realistic and science based as any film about rocketing to the sun can hope to be, Sunshine elegantly, eerily taps into the same anxiety as that Twilight Zone episode that we're all part of a particular cosmic scheme that will eventually, inevitably end.*
Opens Fri/20 in San Francisco theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com