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This Week in Genre History: It's no surprise people didn't see Sunshine's brilliance

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Jul 21, 2021, 2:02 PM EDT

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released

Some movies were probably destined not to be hits. Sure, they might have the superficial look of a blockbuster — lots of special effects, an epic scope or life-and-death stakes — but there’s something a little too strange or offbeat about them that guarantees they won’t catch on with the general public. Often, we call them “cult films” if they’re meant to appeal only to a niche audience, but occasionally an ostensibly commercial film just crashes and burns, getting decent reviews but barely making a ripple at the box office. Maybe these movies are far from perfect — their flaws are self-evident — but they’ve got their own rhythm, their own peculiar worldview, which makes them all the more special. Not everyone was supposed to get these movies, but you do, and that’s all that matters. In some perverse way, you love them more because they weren’t a hit.

On July 20, 2007, Sunshine opened on 10 screens in the U.S. Not quite a tentpole, not exactly an indie drama, it was an ambitious sci-fi space adventure that was also a dark character study and an existential meditation on life itself. And on top of all that, it featured a fairly bleak storyline: In the near future, Earth is in the midst of a solar winter, prompting a group of astronauts to journey to the sun in the hopes of reigniting it. If they succeed, humanity will survive — but the astronauts won’t. Sunshine wasn’t Armageddon where our ragtag heroes saved the day and got to celebrate their triumph back at home. The crew of Icarus II has volunteered for a one-way mission — they’re sacrificing themselves for the rest of us. This was far from the rollicking adventures of Star Wars. No wonder Sunshine was a commercial dud.

“There are two branches of sci-fi, really,” Sunshine director Danny Boyle once said. “There’s the fantasy sci-fi, which is about the creatures, so that’s Star Wars and that kind of thing, where anything goes. And then there’s a much narrower corridor, in which there are the films that we regard as the great masterpieces, such as 2001, the [Andrei] Tarkovsky Solaris and the first Alien film. They break down, really simply, to a ship, a crew, a signal.” 

Boyle, who’d had success with movies like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, knew which kind of sci-fi film he was making. His movie absolutely belonged to that “much narrower corridor,” and while it’s not always successful — even its biggest fans aren’t so sure about that finale — it’s an uncommonly bold attempt at making a distinctive, almost anti-crowd-pleasing sci-fi spectacle. Sunshine is filled with people who would go on to be much bigger stars, including Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, and Benedict Wong, but because the film failed at the box office, it’s somewhat forgotten now. (In a sense, Boyle’s next film, the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, was something of a comeback.) But it’s a fine addition to that subgenre of thought-provoking, deep-space sci-fi that continues to add intriguing new additions every few years.

Why was it a big deal at the time? The truth is, Sunshine wasn’t really a big deal at the time, unless you were someone who just dug Boyle’s genre-hopping cinema. He’d never done a sci-fi film, and when 28 Days Later writer Alex Garland came to him with an idea about making a movie in which a bunch of characters travel to the sun, it captured his fancy. 

“[The sun] is the single most important thing in our solar system and all our lives, for everybody and everything,” Boyle said. “Yet there doesn’t seem to have been many films made about it, which is absolutely amazing, really. There’s Lost in Space, where they kind of fly through the sun and come out the other side and go, ‘Phew! That was hot!’ and then disappear into the next stage of their journey. And there was a Japanese film called Solar Crisis. And that was it.”

Similar to 28 Days Later, Boyle didn’t have a large budget for Sunshine — supposedly only around $40 million — which might have been an obstacle if he was making a sci-fi flick with lots of action sequences and battle scenes. Instead, this was going to be a quieter, more reflective film — one in which we watched the characters grapple with the gravity of their mission while sometimes disagreeing about how to handle the obstacles they face along the way. As much as Boyle pointed to classics like 2001 and Alien as his models, he was also drawing on cerebral, atmospheric dramas such as Das Boot and Apocalypse Now for inspiration. 

And as with his zombie classic, he focused more on bringing together an ensemble of strong actors rather than worrying about established stars. He reunited with 28 Days Later’s Cillian Murphy and also cast Michelle Yeoh, who was probably best known to Western audiences at that point for her work in Tomorrow Never Dies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As for Evans, this was before Captain America, back when he was pigeonholed as the guy from those bad Fantastic Four films. But Evans, who had a theater background, connected with Boyle’s actor-first approach to filmmaking. 

“[The cast] showed up in London over a month before we started shooting just to rehearse and this is the way Danny works,” Evans recalled. “It’s unbelievable, it’s so giving for actors; we ran lines every day like it was a play. We moved in together in the dorm rooms to get the sensation of shared space, we did SCUBA diving, we went to lectures, we saw film, we did the British Airways flight simulators.” Indeed, the director was interested in crafting a sci-fi film that was as realistic as possible, doing extensive research into, for instance, what the reality would be for Earth to enter into a new ice age if, like Sunshine proposes, the sun threatens to go out. 

Emphasizing close-quarters drama and a diverse cast, which also included Cliff Curtis and Hiroyuki Sanada, Boyle wasn’t afraid to kill off characters along the way — or to pare back subplots he decided didn’t work, such as a love story between Evans and Byrne’s characters. “It’s weird in space films — romance doesn’t seem to work in it, even though the studio is desperate for it,” Boyle later said. “The only one we could find was [in] 2010 — there’s a mild romance in that, but even that’s slightly embarrassing. You kind of cringe a bit. I don’t know what it is about space.”

But for all his enthusiasm for tackling a somber sci-fi drama, Sunshine was a headache to make. The film went about $5 million over budget, and its release in the U.S. was pushed back by its distributor, Fox Searchlight, twice. (The film opened in the U.K. a few months before its U.S. unveiling.) Boyle made no secret of how difficult a time he had making Sunshine. “They are really tough, they’re very tough,” Boyle admitted about space-set movies. “I would recommend it to everybody. You should do one. But nobody does more than one — unless they’re doing a [Star Wars] or something like that — no director goes back into space.” 

Plus, it was a difficult sell during an escapist summer movie season that included Spider-Man 3, Transformers, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. After all, the last time Hollywood had tried to make a brainy sci-fi film — Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 American remake of Solaris with George Clooney — it had been a box-office bomb. Fox Searchlight saw Sunshine as nervy counterprogramming to the blockbusters, but it was certainly a risk. “I think fans of original science fiction will really appreciate it,” Fox Searchlight distribution head Steve Gilula told the Los Angeles Times prior to Sunshine’s release. “The question we had internally is, ‘Can you release a 2001 in 2007?’ We think there is an audience, but we don’t want to minimize the challenges.”

Credit: Peter Kramer / Getty

What was the impact? Sunshine got mostly good reviews, but it died commercially, only making about $32 million globally. Was it a mistake to put it out during the summer? Maybe, simply because the film’s sci-fi trappings perhaps raised unreal expectations for what exactly Sunshine was. When Garland explained to the L.A. Times in that same article what drove him to write the script, he said, “You go into deep space and you encounter your subconscious.” Unfortunately, audiences just aren’t interested in something that intellectual when they head to the multiplex. (Just imagine if dumber popcorn fare like Transformers had been marketed that way.) 

Of course, it also didn’t help that the people who made Sunshine didn’t always see eye to eye on its themes and tone. Years later, Garland confessed, “What I can see in Sunshine is I can see unresolved tensions. I can see different movies being made simultaneously. … [S]ometimes viscerality and reflection were fighting for space on that movie. It was like a balance issue.” 

Not that Garland blamed Boyle, later adding, “[T]he most significant failings in Sunshine, from my point of view, were not in Danny’s direction, they were in the script. They predated the shoot or editing, and what we were never able to do was to fix the problems in the script. Because we had a different methodology in terms of how that fix might happen. And it would be completely wrong for me to either state or discreetly imply that the issues in Sunshine that exist rest at Danny’s feet. That’s not how I see it. The difficulty was more in agreeing on what the problem was, but disagreeing on the solution.”

One of those problems was figuring out the ending, which involves Murphy’s character Capa discovering the demented captain of Icarus I, Pinbacker, not unlike Marlon Brando’s insane Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now. For a movie so consumed with realism, Sunshine’s finale was intentionally operatic and bombastic. “The script does take some leaps at the end,” Boyle told the L.A. Times. “But if you can ground it in the first quarter, you can believe the stuff that happens in the end, when it all goes time-warping ballistic.” Not everyone did, with many viewers finding it hokey or ludicrous. (I say “many viewers” because whenever I express my love of Sunshine to somebody new, they always tell me how much they hate the ending.) 

Pinbacker was played by Mark Strong, who like many of the cast members wasn’t nearly as famous as he is now. But he and Boyle had worked on stage and television, and after the director approached him about playing someone in Sunshine, Strong suggested Pinbacker, which surprised Boyle. “He went, ‘Oh no, I think we’re just going to get a stunt guy to do that, because he’s covered in burns,’” Strong recalled. “And I went, ‘No, no, no — I want to have a go at that one.’ Because when it was originally written in the script, the idea was that he was almost transparent, so that when you saw him, he was just, sort of, burning. And you could see through him. But when they got on set, what they realized was, in order to dim the lights to make the UV work so that you could see that effect, there wasn’t enough light to film the scene. It became very complicated.” Others may have thought Capa’s big showdown with Pinbacker lame, but not Strong: “[W]hen you first see Pinbacker in that sunroom — it’s the best.”

Even though Sunshine flopped, Boyle went straight into Slumdog Millionaire, which won Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars. And the cast went on to bigger things, although some of them, like Evans, were always annoyed that Sunshine never got its due. Back in 2011, the same year that Captain America: The First Avenger changed his life, he observed, “Everybody goes and sees Fantastic Four, but nobody sees Sunshine. I’d have a different career if people saw that. All my good movies, nobody sees.”

Has it held up? If Sunshine’s weaknesses remain obvious — its self-conscious evoking of 2001, its wild tonal shift at the conclusion — its great strengths are also still evident. Boyle and Garland were determined to make a sci-fi drama with real emotional and intellectual heft, examining how people react in a desperate situation with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance. The movie is often unspeakably poignant as we watch these few souls respond to crisis after crisis, knowing that it’s up to them to preserve life on Earth. There’s a beautiful resignation in their struggle — they know this is the end of the line for them, one way or another.

Sunshine wasn’t a hit, but every once in a while, you’ll see other films take up the gauntlet of what it tried to achieve. In different ways, films such as Moon, Interstellar, and Ad Astra similarly evoke the majesty of 2001 or the original Solaris: They’re seeking a more philosophical, spiritual examination of science fiction, aiming for the metaphysical rather than just resorting to laser battles. And like Sunshine, they’re awash in awe at the vastness and mystery of the cosmos. All of these movies are essential to see on the big screen — you need to be enveloped by the grandness of their vision.

Sunshine’s vision started with Garland and Boyle, who were simply fascinated by the sun. “I immediately started looking at it, with books and photographs,” Boyle once said about his initial prep work for making Sunshine, later adding, “[A]s soon as you start to delve into it, you start to feel yourself get lost into it and that’s a good sign. Cause that’s one of the things the film is about is your mind as you try to take on board the enormity, the power, the extraordinary thing it is.” 

Just like the sun, Sunshine can hypnotize you if you’re not careful. Many people were immune to the film’s power. But lots of people take the sun for granted, too.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site. His new book, This Is How You Make a Movie, is out now.