The sci-fi genre is thriving. From acclaimed Oscar-winning films like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune to ambitious and original entries like Jordan Peele’s latest movie, Nope, the genre is experiencing what fantasy went through in the noughties: a wave of enthusiastic support from the industry and audiences alike. Television is also in the sci-fi game, with hits like Stranger Things and Severance scoring with critics and becoming fan favorites among viewers.
Yes, the genre is more popular than ever, and we might very well be heading toward a full-blown sci-fi renaissance in television, film, and literature. Perhaps if Danny Boyle’s underrated Sunshine had come out in this sci-fi-loving environment, it mightha ve been acknowledged for the masterpiece it is. Instead, Sunshine came out in 2007, a time of spectacle and mind-numbing escapism when audiences weren’t feeling its brand of thought-provoking, almost philosophical gloom and doom. And so Sunshine slipped through the cracks, barely making an impression in cinemas. Sunshine grossed a disappointing $34 million against a production budget of $40 million. That’s a flop if there ever was one. And it’s not like it gained new life on DVD; on the contrary, Sunshine died, much like the sun in its daring plot, and no bomb or heroic crew rescued it from its doom.
And what a shame. Sunshine is far from a perfect film, but it never tries to be one. It avoids in-your-face storytelling, instead going for evocation, trying to elicit intense emotions from its reluctant audience. But audiences didn’t want to experience a film that ends with [spoiler alert!] the deaths of the entire main cast — some of whom went on to become A-listers — and a parting message that’s equally depressing and hopeful.
Born to blossom, bloom to perish
Sunshine wasn’t Boyle’s first crack at sci-fi. Six years earlier, his breakthrough hit, the zombie apocalypse horror film 28 Days Later, wowed critics and audiences all the way to an $85 million international box office against a measly $8 million budget. The film cemented Boyle as a scrappy director who could deliver big-budget spectacle on a budget, making him an obvious choice to direct a big Hollywood sci-fi film.
Fox’s specialty brand, Fox Searchlight Pictures, paired Boyle’s unique style with the grandiose words of Alex Garland, who also wrote the script for 28 Days Later. Pairing the two key components of 28 Days Later with five times the budget seemed to be a surefire way to get five times the zombie film’s box office, right? Not quite. Say what you will about Garland and Boyle, but their approach isn’t exactly “commercial.”
Indeed, Boyle’s blatant attempts at commercial filmmaking — Sunshine, 127 Hours, Trance — have fallen short of expectations mainly because Boyle can’t seem to reconcile his interests with the nature of blockbuster entertainment. Ironically, those projects in which Boyle is unashamedly Boyle — Slumdog Millionaire, both Trainspotting films, and, surprisingly, Yesterday — became sleeper hits at the multiplex.
Sunshine got caught up somewhere between Boyle’s interests as a storyteller and his ambitions as a filmmaker. The film features a plot that’s slightly more demanding than your average blockbuster — Garland is a notoriously challenging writer, but Boyle does very little to make his words more digestible. Even so, it’s not like Sunshine is intentionally difficult or provocative. Sunshine is not Annihilation, and it never tries to be. However, it’s also not Armaggedon, or even Contact either. Not quite auteur-driven, but not exactly commercial catnip, Sunshine is a weird attempt at reconciling the two. Suffice it to say, it fails.
Even if Sunshine fails from a narrative perspective, it’s impossible to deny that it is a soaring triumph from a visual standpoint. Sunshine looks and feels beautiful, awe-inspiring, grand, and impressive. At a time when $250 million blockbusters look objectively ugly and disappointing, Sunshine stands out as a technical marvel, proof that magic can happen when a gifted filmmaker receives a decent budget.
They say the visuals are the key to a successful blockbuster, so why didn’t they help Sunshine succeed? There’s a large conversation happening about auteur filmmakers and whether there’s a place for them in blockbuster cinema. The recent release of The Batman and Dune seems to suggest there is; however, the argument goes back to square one when films like Matrix Resurrections and The Northman flop at the box office.
Not a nobody, not yet a star
Movie stars are vital to Hollywood’s success. Today’s cinematic landscape proves that movie stars are still necessary, especially since nowadays they are scarce and selective. Sandra Bullock’s star power led The Lost City to $190 million worldwide, including an impressive $105 million domestic gross. And Tom Cruise’s brand of daring deeds helped Top Gun: Maverick defy all expectations, grossing $1.3 billion and counting.
It’s never wise to discount the importance of movie stars, especially when it comes to original ideas and thinking-person’s cinema. Would Arrival have made it past the $200 million mark had it not had Amy Adams as the star? How important was Matt Damon for The Martian‘s gargantuan $630 million box office? Ditto with DiCaprio in Inception and Bullock (again!) in Gravity. Movie stars are crucial for original movies, and Sunshine had zero. Nothing. Nada.
Cillian Murphy is a gifted and charismatic actor, but he’s not a movie star, despite Hollywood’s best efforts. The actor is an excellent supporting player and a leading man ideal for television. However, he lacks the charisma to be a genuine movie star. The film’s supporting cast is full of recognizable faces that would go on to find great success later on — Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Benedict Wong, Mark Strong, freaking Chris Evans. The names keep coming, one familiar face after the other. But none of them were movie stars then; hell, most aren’t movie stars now.
Yeoh and Evans were the most famous of the lot — curiously, they are also the most famous now. However, their roles play second-fiddle to Murphy’s character, and the film makes it clear that they are, if not disposable, at least unnecessary for the third act. Everyone else is even more sidelined, with only Byrne and Strong standing out; she’s the closest thing to a female lead, and he’s Mark Strong, so he’s logically playing the bad guy.
Perhaps that was Sunshine‘s true mistake; not having a movie star that could burn as brightly as the sun does in the film. How different would things have gone if, instead of Murphy, there had been a DiCaprio or a Denzel Washington in the lead? Sunshine‘s budget wouldn’t have been $40 million, let me tell you that much. However, someone like Orlando Bloom — then in the middle of his Pirates of the Caribbean fame and with enough star power to help Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic Kingdom of Heaven cross the $200 million mark –might’ve made more sense. Perhaps the extra $10 million would’ve been worth it.
The perfect sci-fi?
In six words or less, Sunshine is a near-perfect film. Gripping, thrilling, profound, and ambitious to a fault, Sunshine is an exercise in escalation. Steering away from classic sci-fi tropes, the film presents a deeply humanistic look into a technology-obsessed genre. Sunshine presents the struggle of humanity against itself, concluding in a decidedly bleak third act that successfully drives its point home, even as it degenerates into the very same tropes it initially tries to subvert.
So why is Sunshine so underrated? The film had a fate worse than infamy because Sunshine is forgettable. No one talks about it or even remembers it, and that’s a genuine disservice to sci-fi, especially in a decade where the genre offered few worthy entries. By going for a more grounded and reflective approach, Sunshine shot itself in the foot and doomed its prospects and legacy. Because who wants quiet introspection from a sci-fi blockbuster? Not many people then, and even fewer now.
And that’s Sunshine‘s one fault. It is nearly perfect, but by choosing restraint and favoring humanism over tech ideals, it puts itself at a disadvantage, especially in the massive and escapist world of science fiction. Sunshine‘s flaw is a distinctive lack of vanity and spectacle. Even as it succumbs to formulaic storytelling in the third act, it can’t overcome its initial timid approach. In a cruel twist of fate, what makes Sunshine unique is what dooms it to oblivion.
Even so, the film is worth your time. Cinephiles and sci-fi aficionados will have already watched; indeed, one famous cinephile has raved about it, and has advocated for its place in the sci-fi classics pantheon. But casual viewers have sunned the film because of its forgotten status. If you’re willing to pay the $3.99 on Apple or Amazon and give this unicorn of a film a chance, you probably won’t regret it. Sunshine is singular and pretty memorable once you give it a chance to wow you with its unique approach.
So what if it lacks the tense, claustrophobic quality of Ridley Scott’s Alien or the timeless quality of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Sunshine has other things going for it, including a distinctive take on sci-fi dystopia and an ending so bittersweet it will leave viewers feeling a knot in their stomachs. And who wouldn’t want to watch that?