The Sun is dying, and mankind is dying with it. Our last hope: a spaceship and a crew of eight men and women. They carry a device which will breathe new life into the star. But deep into their voyage, out of radio contact with Earth, their mission is starting to unravel. Soon the crew are fighting not only for their lives, but their sanity.
The film once again pairs director Danny Boyle with writer Alex Garland and producer Andrew Macdonald, who previously teamed up for the thinking person’s zombie film, 28 DAYS LATER.
The cast is led by Rose Byrne (TROY), Cliff Curtis (WHALE RIDER), Chris Evans (FANTASTIC FOUR), Troy Garity (AFTER THE SUNSET), Cillian Murphy (28 DAYS LATER), Hiroyuki Sanada (THE LAST SAMURAI), Benedict Wong (DIRTY PRETTY THINGS) and Michelle Yeoh (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON).
“The premise of SUNSHINE,” explains producer Andrew Macdonald, “is that in 50 years from now the Sun is dying. It is no longer providing the energy and the light that mankind needs to survive on Earth. The entire global community pools its resources to send a mission into space to deliver a bomb to reignite the part of the Sun that is failing. Our story concerns the eight astronauts and scientists who lead this mission. On their journey towards the Sun the crew stumble upon the ship that was sent on the same mission seven years previously, the Icarus I, drifting in space. From this point on things start to go very wrong and it’s about how the crew react under the enormous pressure of their endeavor to save mankind.”
Screenwriter Alex Garland came up with the concept for SUNSHINE back in 2004 after reading an article in an American scientific periodical. “I always had a desire to write a certain kind of science fiction film,” Garland says. “I wanted to explore the idea of man traveling into deep space and what he discovers there, as well as what he finds in his own subconscious. I had been looking for a storyline to hang this idea on when I read an article projecting the future of mankind from a physics-based atheistic perspective. It contained theories on when the Sun would die and what would actually happen when it eventually did. Man needs the Sun’s energy to survive and when that energy runs out it will lead to man’s extinction. What I found interesting about that was that it is easy to speculate about the potential end of mankind, but what if it was a certainty within our lifetime. What interested me was the idea that it could get to a point when the entire planet’s survival rests on the shoulders of one man, and what that would do to his head. That became a trigger point for the story.”
Eight months later Garland arranged to meet director Danny Boyle in a West End pub and gave him the first draft of his script to read. Boyle called Garland the next day enthusing that they should go ahead and make the film.
“What I love about Alex’s work is he has these big ideas,” explains Boyle. “The British film industry tends to make quite small films, but Alex’s writing always contains these massive ideas and concepts, which is wonderful, though complex to finance and realize.”
For producer Macdonald, Garland’s script was a real page-turner. “I think Alex writes tremendously visually, and, unlike a lot of scripts you read, SUNSHINE has got a driving narrative that really pulls you along. Some scripts are quite academic and hard work but with Alex’s scripts you can easily visualize the story as you read it.”
The trio of Boyle, Macdonald and Garland had previously teamed up for Fox Searchlight’s 2003 smash hit 28 Days Later. “We share a love of certain types of films, but we all have our own opinions of how they should play out, which I think makes the relationships stronger,” says Macdonald. “One of the key things is that Alex is very much the writer and Danny is very much the director and they both have very strong voices. My job is to help them realize what is in their imaginations, while at the same time balancing that with the practical realities of making a successful film.”
“I think we are all very ambitious people but for some reason when we get together we abandon our egos,” Boyle notes. “I kick into the script and Alex kicks into the film and we are quite blunt and honest with each other and that helps the process enormously.”
Boyle was drawn to both the Icarus II’s literal voyage to the Sun as well as its crew’s psychological journey as they head out across the cosmos. “Traveling to the Sun is great visually, but also very interesting psychologically,” he explains. “We wanted to make the film as psychological a journey as possible. There is the question about what happens to your mind when you meet the creator of all things in the universe, which for some people is a spiritual, religious idea, but for other people it is a purely scientific idea. We are all made up of particles of exploded star, so what would it be like to get close to the Sun, the star from which all the life in our solar system comes from? I thought it would be a huge mental challenge to try and capture that.”
In their desire to present, on screen, a believable space mission rather than a piece of science fantasy, the filmmakers looked first to NASA in their research, watching numerous space documentaries as well as classic science fiction films, and meeting with as many scientists and astronauts as possible. Macdonald had seen the young British physicist Dr. Brian Cox on a BBC TV program and contacted him with a view to discussing the project. Thereafter Cox, who works at CERN [the Centre for European Nuclear Research], the world’s largest particle physics laboratory in Geneva, joined the production as scientific consultant, and his input was to prove invaluable. On hand to give the cast and crew a better understanding of the Solar system, he also worked intensively with Cillian Murphy, who plays Capa, the ship’s Physicist.
“The science is extremely sound in the film,” explains Cox. “You can tell Alex is a fan of science as well as a science fiction fan. There were a few edges we ironed out but basically it was the back story rather than the plot that my expertise was needed for.” Adds Boyle, “You become obsessed with the accuracy of the science and you do try to obey the rules of physics and make it as real as possible, but in the end you have to abandon certain elements and just go for what is dramatically effective.”
In line with social and economic predictions regarding the continued growth of China as a global superpower, the filmmakers concluded that any future space mission would include a significant Asian contingent. “The film has an American/Asian crew because we felt that in 50 years time the Chinese and American space programs would be the most developed and that they would have the economic power to bankroll such an endeavor,” says Boyle. “But ideally we were looking for actors from all around the world.” Auditions were held in Los Angeles, New York and London, with Boyle eventually bringing together an impressive international cast, with actors hailing from America, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Britain.