In Danny Boyle's "Sunshine," a group of eight astronauts -- each with a specific function, from knowing how to tame a freaked-out cooling system with a monkey wrench to tending a self-sustaining "oxygen garden" -- hurtle toward the sun in a small capsule attached to a bomb. Stars die all the time, and now the sun is dying too: The earth, in response, grows cold and dark. The mission of the Icarus 2 -- there was, of course, an Icarus 1 before it -- is to jump-start the ailing sun by firing a massive grenade straight at it. And the wonder of it all is that Boyle makes you believe, for a while at least, that it actually could work.
"Sunshine" -- its script is by Alex Garland, who also collaborated with Boyle on the elegiac zombie thriller "28 Days Later" -- is one of those unapologetically cerebral space-exploration sci-fi movies that's both boring and compelling at once, the heir to pictures like "2001" and Tarkovsky's "Solaris." But it's a movie divided: The picture's first half is languidly terrifying, a somber, chilly march toward oblivion, and the actors -- most notably the movie's star, and its heart, Cillian Murphy -- make us feel the import of that mission. Although there's a chance the ship will be able to deliver the "payload" -- the not-so-vaguely pornographic term assigned to the missile -- and scoot away from the explosion before it can destroy them, the crew has accepted that Icarus 2 is essentially a suicide mission. When the crew members learn they'll be reaching their destination seven days earlier than expected, Murphy's Capa, the ship's physicist, tapes a message to send back to his parents. He poses against a glittery green background and begins his restless patter ("I hope you're proud of your son. Saving mankind. And so on"), doing four or five takes before he hits it right. "If you wake up one morning, and it's a particularly beautiful day, you'll know we made it." And then the cryptic kicker: "See you in a couple of years."
That faux-cheerful sign-off may be the most chilling moment in "Sunshine," a modest remnant of everyday life in the face of its potential extinction. There are times when "Sunshine" (shot by Alwin H. Kuchler) feels like a movie not made on Earth: At its best it has a detached, lost-in-space quality reminiscent of the haunting beginning of "You Only Live Twice," in which an astronaut's lifeline is clipped -- but very slowly, like a kind of torture -- sending him floating off into space. The ship itself is a compact nest of lonely-looking warrens and chambers; Mark Tildesley's production design is restrained and austere, and its lack of extravagance only makes the setup more convincing. Boyle takes care with the details, allowing us to hear the groaning of the ship: Even though it's made of metal, we hear it expanding and contracting, like the wooden ships of old. And during the most dangerous parts of the mission, when crew members need to leave the ship, they don puffy gold lamé spacesuits, the sort of thing Paco Rabanne might design for the Michelin Man.
Boyle doles out plenty of eerie touches: We hear staticky distress calls from ships that have long disappeared; we catch glimpses of the faces of a dead crew in brief blips between frames, like the subliminal cues -- split-second flashes of naked women and such -- that supposedly cluttered advertising in the 1960s.
But as gifted a filmmaker as Boyle is -- in addition to the exhilarating "Trainspotting," he made one of my favorite oddball pictures of the 1990s, "A Life Less Ordinary" -- he can't sustain the mood of dread he builds in the movie's first act. Slowly, "Sunshine" begins to creak under the considerable weight of its own pretensions. The movie's climax should be swift and horrifying; instead, it's belabored and lumbering. The story gives us a clear villain, and it doesn't need one -- isn't the betrayal of the sun enough? The first half or so of "Sunshine" made me feel queasy and unmoored, as if time were in danger of stopping at any moment. By the second half, it seemed simply that time was dragging its heels on the way to stopping: The movie's hypnotic spell had been broken.
That's a shame, because the actors here do fine work. Chris Evans, as the ship's mechanic, Mace, is both more surly and livelier than he is in the "Fantastic Four" pictures; Michelle Yeoh, as the biologist Corazon, has little to do but still manages to be a vital presence; and Rose Byrne, as navigator Cassie, has an air of delicate hardiness that suits the picture beautifully. She's like a Victorian heroine misplaced in time.
But the picture would be nothing, an incomplete Venn diagram, without Murphy. His eyes, that impossible blue, could be the result of a recessive alien chromosome, but he's so dutiful and so troubled that it's clear he's painfully human. Murphy pulls off the near-impossible task of making saving Earth look like something you just do without thinking: Maybe that has something to do with his lanky, teenagerish frame, or the way his hair looks inherently resistant to combing. His preternaturally youthful quality is deeply touching here, but it also makes me want to fast-forward 20 years, and then 40, to see what kind of old man he'll become. Much of what's affecting about "Sunshine" comes from looking at this character's face and knowing he might not make it there.