Any respectable slab of sci-fi pop needs a good hook, and "Sunshine," the third collaboration between director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland, is almost instantly hummable. It's the year 2057, and a crew of hottie astronauts (including Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, and Michelle Yeoh) are sent to reignite our dying sun with a massive nuclear payload. How exactly the situation got so dire, and why these particular men and women were selected for the voyage that will ostensibly save the human race, are details that matter less than questions such as: how in the hell are they going to complete their seemingly impossible suicide mission, especially with an increasingly limited oxygen supply and a crew given to dismaying fits of incompetence (read: human foible)? Reigniting the sun: it's a science-fiction proposal that's naturally grandiose and metaphorical in concept (yes, the spacecraft is called Icarus II) and promising in terms of narrative stakes, yet Boyle and Garland wisely throw a bunch of curve balls at the audience. The fun in watching "Sunshine" relies on entering knowing the concept and not much more; Garland piles so many divergences, catastrophes, and moral dilemmas on top of one another with such accelerating swiftness that it grows impossible to look away. Things might get overwrought, silly even, but it's immensely pleasurable plunging headfirst into the fiery mess-even (or especially?) when it turns into an interstellar slasher film.
Free of "The Beach"'s self-important literary aspirations and "28 Days Later"'s fatal attempts to transcend genre, "Sunshine" is Boyle and Garland's best work together thus far, gorgeously designed and not as brainy as it initially seems, which ultimately doesn't seem to matter. It's a lot less like "2001" than "The Abyss," James Cameron's tactile, emotionally satisfying underwater voyage that juggled about five different storylines with aplomb - every time a situation seemed to resolve itself, another one crashed in like a tidal wave. Here, initial human conflict comes in the form of some half-hearted internal fighting between Murphy's Capa, the mission physicist, and engineer Mace, played by omnipresent everyjock Evans, the intimated but unrequited attraction between Capa and pilot Cassie (Byrne), and the almost obsessive need of Curtis's medical officer Searle to find ways of looking directly into the blazing sun.
In the end, there might not be much to separate "Sunshine" in spirit from other recent psychological outer-space action flicks like "Event Horizon" or "Supernova," even though there's a high level of craftsmanship (in the widescreen cinematography and positively roasting sound design) that outdoes the currently dull norm of most Hollywood technicians. Still, it's the film's devotion to storytelling that defines it, its pulpy, page-turning forward motion. There's enough straight-faced techno-jargon, "what would you do?" moral queries, and palm-sweating set pieces to put Boyle's film over the top, but not enough metaphysical heft or plausible social metaphor to make it seem much more than a sci-fi lark. Boyle's film may contain the ultimate tips for saving energy, but for re-energizing the sci-fi genre, it's only halfway there.
Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.