I had the hardest time getting anybody interested in seeing Sunshine with me because, well, basically because nobody had heard of it. Boy am I glad that I finally did, though. It is not the feel-good hit of the summer (to put it mildly). It's not in the top 5 science fiction movies of all time; maybe not even in the top 50. But I enjoyed it tremendously, and would have if even for only one reason: as I said in the subject, this is the kind of good old fashioned hard science fiction space thriller that I thought they'd stopped making for good. Sunshine feels, in a lot of ways, like the movie that Arthur Clarke wanted to make before it got arted up beyond comprehensibility by Kubrick. I also sense that it owes a lot to one of my all time favorite movies, the undeservedly obscure Douglas Trumble movie with Bruce Dern, Silent Running. It feels like a really good short story from Analog, from back in the good old days when Campbell or Schmidt were editing it, made into an incredibly faithful movie adaptation.
The science behind it is that we know that all stars are, to some extent, variable stars, and it's hard to know just how variable our own star is. In Sunshine, some time in the uncomfortably near future the sun has gone into a sudden "solar minimum" cycle, dimmed enough to bring on a global ice age. Billions are freezing and starving. But one physicist has an almost mad-scientist level plan: combine the force of all the world's nuclear bombs into one gigantic fusion bomb, shield it so that it can survive a fall through the outer levels of the solar photosphere, and detonate it as close to the center of the sun as possible, in hopes of igniting a more powerful fusion reaction and jump-starting the end of the solar minimum. The result was an immense spaceship, the Icarus: one nuclear fusion bomb "the size of Manhattan" and a long, narrow crew quarters module, all hiding behind an immense gold-plated solar shield. It took years to build, then 18 months to fly from Earth to the sun ... and nothing happened. The radiation that close to the sun is too strong to hear the Icarus's communications through, so we don't know why, and the Icarus never returned. So in total desperation, the planet's governments scavenged the last remains of technological civilization, almost, and mined all the last known accessible deposits of uranium, and spent another five and a half years building the last chance we have, the Icarus 2. We are told early on that the starvation has gotten so bad, and the resources were so mined out, that if the Icarus 2 doesn't make it, or if it does make it and the bomb fails to turn up the brightness on the sun, civilization is doomed, and maybe even the whole human race itself.
The Icarus spaceship in this movie is a thing of beauty, the way the Discovery was in 2001 or the Valley Forge in Silent Running, even more so than the Serenity in Firefly. A big chunk of that beauty comes from the physics involved: a total contrast between light so intense it's deadly on one side of the solar shield, total darkness lit only by the running lights of the ship in its shadow. Other than Michelle Yeoh (as the ship's environmental officer), the cast are nearly all total unknowns, but there isn't a single false note in any of their performances. It's tightly plotted and kept me on the literal edge of my seat for much of the movie, something that almost never happens in a thriller. It's also that all-too-rare thing, a science fiction movie that assumes that 21st century scientists and astronauts are likely to have a passing familiarity with classic science fiction, making for at least one really cute gag. I don't know what else to say about this one other than that if you get a chance to see it on the big screen and you like actual science in your science fiction, track this one down.