You got the touch! You got the powwww-er!
I've always thought that humanity was pretty short-sighted to collectively decide that sacrificing babies to the Sun wasn't worth the hassle. Whose stupid idea was that? Now, the only recourse we have if Ra starts getting cranky is to put our continued existence in the hands of the same people who can't ever seem to design a space-ship hatch that doesn't get stuck at the most inopportune time: Scientists.
Such is the premise of Sunshine. A team of psychologically unfit astronauts and associated types have blasted off from earth carrying a massive nuclear payload to the deliver to the heart of the sun, much like a hypodermic needle full of adrenaline to the heart of an ODing bitch. They're following in the footsteps of a previous mission that mysteriously disappeared. Tip: If you're flying to the Sun, don't name your spaceship the Icarus! Was "Challenger" already taken?
The crew of the Icarus II (natch) consists of a genre-standard smorgasbord of types: stolid, self-sacrificing captain; possibly unstable psych officer; mission-oriented science jock; two high-strung neurotics; under-used racially-ambiguous female biologist; naive physicist; and naive girlfriend. Oh, and a ship that talks and is sort of sentient. We're introduced in media res, as the crew is at the point of the journey where their on-board communication devices are nearing zero bars of reception.
After human error leads to a predictably tense (though not less enjoyable for it) spacewalk in stylish if bulky gold lamé spacesuits, the crew starts to disintegrate psychologically as well as physically. Not only has the miscalculation nearly destroyed their nuclear device, but their fragile ecosystem and thus all hopes for a journey home alive has been ravaged the sun.
Even a dying sun packs enough fire and force to eradicate all differences. It looms huge throughout the entire movie, dwarfing the merely human actions even while itself dying, becoming smaller. The Sun is not just the life-giver to the human beings on Planet Earth, but a destructive force beyond all rational understanding and control. The film makes a point of this when the chief Physicist tries to run a simulation of what the consequences of payload delivery will be - at a certain point all calculations become unreliable, and the crew's nightmares of plummeting towards the surface of the sun are just as a reliable guide as their super-computer.
The crew has to make other calculations besides things like proper trajectories and remaining oxygen. There's a moral calculus at play, balancing the seriousness of the mission and the ability to sacrifice the good of any single person for the continuity of the species. Some crew members are more comfortable with the abstraction of the species than they are with the reality of the fellow human beings on board the ship. The script is full of metaphors of control - about what we can control as a singular human being, as a species, and as a constituent of the universe. There is a push-pull between abandoning and seizing control, and it's not a coincidence that the two characters who most clearly see and believe in the mission like to spend their leisure time giving up control, by basking in the sense-depriving rays of the looming sun or being crashed upon by ocean waves in a "earth simulation" program.
Unfortunately, what could have been an interesting exploration of the limits of scientific and rationale thought when confronted with not only huge, unanswerable questions about existence and the nature of the universe, coupled with the surely cinematically-engaging evidence of the ways the laws of the universe change in extreme situations is pushed aside in favor of the introduction of a faith-based boogey-man. Just in time to derail the mission, a character appears that starts spouting lines like "our Science and our genes are futile. It is not our place to challenge god," which has been the default position of Film in relation to science and scientists since Frankenstein.
Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland try to play against this traditional movie archetype of the god-mocking, overreaching scientist, but seem to go too far in the other direction, shoe-horning in a menacing, Freddy Krueger-ish nightmare of Faith into the proceedings as the antithesis of the way the more or less rational scientists are trying to save all of humanity. The problem is that, at the end of the film, Science requires just as much of a leap of faith as leaving the universe in the hand of a god would. The last remaining astronaut has to "let go and let science," so to speak. Science, in the end, ends up a matter of faith and relinquishment of control. You may think you're the one setting the controls for the heart of the sun but nature is really driving the bus.
Boyle employs some simple but effective editing techniques that ratchet up suspense while also serving as an echo of the way time and space are warped when approaching the extreme physical conditions created by a star. There are some amazingly jarring flashback frames abruptly cut into the film as the crew board the dark hulk of the earlier Icarus, and the final scenes where the ship and remaining crew members plummet towards the sun stop and start in ways unfamiliar to us terrestrial-bound humans, taking away our control and expectations of continuity as viewers, leaving us no choice but to let the filmmakers do their thing. After showing us what might be Eternity, they then leave it in our hands, and we're able to decide for ourselves what it all means. Has something been preserved or have all the efforts of science just bought us another big-whup 5 billion years of learning to live with the unknowable?