Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, which is now in theaters in grande size and IMAX, left me feeling at turns awestruck, annoyed, impressed, amused, and ultimately a little empty inside, much like the vastness of space. But more than anything, it gave me a renewed appreciation for Sunshine, the 2007 movie from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle that also happens to be about astronauts embarking on a desperate journey to save humanity.
Sunshine, which is available to rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms, is cramped and crabby and an ensemble effort where Interstellar is expansive and optimistic and focused on the experiences of one particular man. Boyle's film is about resetting the clock on Earth rather than picking up and heading to brand-new realms. If you, like me, were frustrated by the lack of consideration that Interstellar gives to non-America, the stress of space travel, and the psychology of facing extinction, Sunshine provides a reassuring counterbalance in which all of Earth is invested in mankind's survival. Plus, it's an effort that requires awful sacrifices.
Sunshine, which was written by Alex Garland (Boyle's collaborator on The Beach and 28 Days Later...), is a much smaller film than Interstellar, at least as far as giant space epics go, costing a reported $40 million to Nolan's $165 million. It wasn't a hit, and there were complaints about the unexpected direction it took in its third act, but it's aged incredibly well — better, I think, than Interstellar will once it's removed from the grandeur of the big screen and the creakiness of its attempts at emotional drama becomes more evident.
Sunshine never equals Interstellar in scope — instead of hauling off to a different galaxy, it sticks to our solar system and the dying Sun that its characters are trying to jump start. But it uses a sense of claustrophobia to its advantage. Interstellar makes space travel look relatively easy — McConaughey's Cooper, who was once a NASA pilot, steps effortlessly back into the role with no apparent need for further training and weathers two years of the voyage in cryo-sleep. But Sunshine's crew is tense and ragged, and the members have spent 16 months getting on each other's nerves when it starts. And where Cooper is chosen for his mission thanks to destiny, the team on the Icarus II in Sunshine ("eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb") is made up of carefully chosen specialists.
They, like their predecessors, are a multinational group: physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy), engineer Mace (Chris Evans), pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne), biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), doctor and psychologist Searle (Cliff Curtis), communications officer Harvey (Troy Garity), navigator Trey (Benedict Wong), and captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada). (And much of the cast went on to greater fame.)
Sunshine may actually be more naive than America's apparent isolationism in Interstellar, suggesting the world has managed to cooperate long enough to work not one but two resource-draining missions together. But it's also a simple, if imperfect (the cast spoke mainly in American accents to make the movie more U.S.-friendly) representation of an honest-to-god global effort and an acknowledgment of the fact that multiple countries have invested in space programs.
In Sunshine, the Icarus II hasn't just been breezing along — the movie makes you feel that 16 months in space. Mace starts the movie with the shaggy hair and beard of a guy wallowing after a breakup. When he and Capa, who frequently butt heads, get in a scuffle over recording messages to send home, Cassie reports with the dryness of someone who's seen it before that "we have an excess of manliness breaking out in the com center." Searle becomes a little obsessed with sitting in the observation room and bathing in the filtered light of the approaching sun, noting that you can lose yourself in it.
These people are not friends — they can be prickly and impatient with one another, like any roommates who've been cooped up for almost a year and a half. But they're colleagues who trust each other's expertise, and when they're faced with a major decision, Mace points out that it makes no sense to vote on it, saying, "We're not a democracy. We're a collection of astronauts and scientists." Capa, whose specialty has the most bearing, has to make the call. They're all accountable for their areas, and no one is easy on the person who makes a big mistake. They actually act like a team of the best and the brightest, recruited to be part of a mission with the most serious stakes imaginable. They act like what they're doing is hard work.
Interstellar, for me, struggled mightily with its balance between being a movie about the survival of mankind and being one about a rugged individual's relationship with his daughter — hence Cooper acting like he has to leave soon to pick his kids up from school while working on the most important mission humanity might ever embark on. He treats the prospect that he'll get home as a done deal, as if it's just the timing that's the issue. But the Sunshine crew members aren't just aware that they're embarking on a journey that's perilous with an end goal that's still entirely theoretical, they know they're also following in the footsteps of a failed previous mission — the Icarus I. The numbers say they can make it to the Sun and back, but as unexpected encounters and accidents take their toll, the math becomes brutal.
"It's different, being afraid that you won't make it back home, and knowing you won't," Cassie observes after it becomes clear they'll be lucky to even make it to the drop-off point. And exploring the realities of that mindset may be Sunshine's greatest achievement, and one that makes even the final twist, with its touches of mysticism, work better in retrospect. Its characters are on what they know could be a prolonged suicide mission, and have embarked on it anyway, surrendering themselves to the greater good — though not without anguish and terror and bouts of panicked cowardice, because they're only human.
Sunshine is a movie about the actual difficulty of thinking of yourself as part of a larger whole, of mankind. Its emotional impact, a few years out, feels more resonant and real than any talk of love as having the power to span space and time.