There’s a lot of wizard science in Danny Boyle’s sci-fi thriller Sunshine, but for plot purposes all you really need to know is that the temperature at the sun’s core is 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. This gets fairly crispy at close quarters, as the dedicated crew of the starship Enterprise — I mean, Icarus II — discovers while trying to rescue the beleaguered star from solar winter. Unnervingly, it is not very far in the future: 2057 to be exact. The sun is dying, the Earth is sunk in deep freeze, and it’s all our fault for not going green. The meaningfully named Icarus I went missing seven years ago, and its successor — stuffed with scientists, only two of whom seem to be over the age of 18 — inherits the mission of restoring the sun’s energy by hurling nuclear payload at it, thus creating (I think) a shield that will also warm things up back home. But lo! Distress signals come a-beeping from Spaceship One, raising for Spaceship Two the question of whether to save the lives of a handful of colleagues, or that of the entire planet Earth.

It gets a lot worse, but never mind. The unspeakably lovely Icarus II, whose many rooms include an organic oxygen garden tended by Michelle Yeoh — seen happily pulling carrots early on in the movie — appears to have been assembled by a very expensive Meccano set. So too does the dialogue, which comes to us from the pen of Alex Garland, whose novel The Beach became Boyle’s ill-starred bomb of the same name. Disappointingly, nobody actually says “Negative, Captain,” but there’s a lot of hushed, urgent talk about adjusting trajectories and such, and it comes as an immense relief when serial calamity strikes, the ship starts breaking apart, and someone says, “Oh, shit.” This makes perfect sense when you consider that Icarus II is manned by a scruffy bunch of child scientists (target audience 12-21, wouldn’t you say?) in stringy gray undershirts and little ponytails, with sage counsel administered by a computerized female whose plummy vowels entertainingly resemble those of one of the navigational thingummies in fancier Prius models. So, wonders the sensitive prodigy Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy): Who’s in charge here? Man, God or machine? With a director as archly referential as Boyle, it can’t be an accident that Capa is named for the famous war photographer. But I’m damned if I know why, other than the fact that Murphy’s blitzed cornflower peepers, which spend much of the movie gazing helplessly out of one confining contraption or another, represent the eyes of the movie — equally terror-struck at the sins of man and awestruck by nature in all its endangered grandeur.

I don’t mean to put you off Sunshine, which is the most ravishingly atmospheric movie I’ve seen all year. This is not primarily a look-at-my-gizmos dog-and-pony show, though Boyle does amazing things with light to create a self-contained world trapped in space. But the film’s primary emotion, other than a perfunctory exchange of goo-goo eyes between Murphy and the sweet-faced Rose Byrne, is a sustained and constricted fright. For sheer technical virtuosity, British cinema has every reason to thank Boyle and his Cool Britannia cohorts for dragging it out of its long obsession with the kitchen sink, and at 50 the director has grown up and away from the callow cynicism of Trainspotting. But aside from the lovely family film Millions, Boyle has never been very good at the human thing, and still isn’t. Sunshine is littered with big ideas about the degree to which we, not the elements, are our own worst enemies, and about death, which Boyle handles as usual with a visceral frankness that borders on sadism. Yet, at its core, the movie remains an expert but conventional thriller more preoccupied with the mechanics of sabotage than with deep thought about our relationship to the universe. Boyle has said that he tries to make optimistic movies, and it gives nothing away to say that the final shot of a day dawning back home is the movie’s most gorgeous image. But in the end he’s more moved by space than by Earth. The most indelible moment I took away from Sunshine, in which a tiny figure in a golden space suit floats away from the ship into the gravitational pull of the sun, is one of ecstatic, appalling loneliness.

SUNSHINE | Directed by DANNY BOYLE | Written by ALEX GARLAND | Produced by ANDREW MACDONALD | Released by Fox Searchlight | ArcLight

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