When I watched Alex Garland’s Annihilation for the first time, I was blown away. I’d read the book by Jeff Vandermeer and enjoyed it wholeheartedly, but Garland’s version was a different take on Vandermeer’s story and the perfect contemporary example of slow-burn science fiction. Annihilation is a natural evolution for Garland as a genre creator, especially if you’re familiar with some of his earlier scripts, like 2007’s Sunshine.
This film marked the third collaboration at the time between Garland and director Danny Boyle, who had first adapted Garland’s novel The Beach into a film in 2000 starring Leonardo DiCaprio. They later paired on the 2002 post-apocalyptic horror movie 28 Days Later, which was much more successful both critically and at the box office. Making Sunshine proved to be an exhausting experience for Boyle, who later said that he was done directing science fiction movies after this intensive creative process that lasted over three years — from writing the script to editing and working on special effects after a three-month production. The result is a melancholic, bittersweet commentary on humanity, with ethereal visuals and a perfectly rounded ensemble — and if it is indeed Boyle’s sci-fi swan song, Sunshine is one worth watching.
As the precursor to Annihilation, Sunshine establishes a lot of the same narrative beats that Garland plays on in his later script. There’s the stalwart group of the Icarus II, comprising a range of scientists, engineers, and other experts in their respective fields, and they’re all made up of powerhouse actors in roles that are forebears to many of the big franchises we’ll see them in eventually. Cillian Murphy, who had earlier starred in 28 Days Later, leads as a mild-mannered physicist whose job it is to operate the stellar bomb programmed to reinvigorate the galaxy’s dying sun. Meanwhile, Chris Evans inhabits a very different role than the kind most modern audiences tend to associate him with. You won’t see any sign of Captain America in ship’s engineer Mace, a hot-headed asshole with a tendency to hit first and ask questions later. Add to that Rose Byrne as pilot Cassie, Michelle Yeoh as biologist Corazon, Benedict Wong as navigator Trey, and Hiroyuki Sanada as Icarus II’s captain Kaneda, and you’ve got a full house of talent in an international cast who can bring the breadth of emotion needed to tell a convincing sci-fi movie with world-saving stakes.Familiar faces aside, Sunshine isn’t a movie that affords its ensemble much time for fraternization, nor are there moments where the story slows down once things start to go sideways for the ill-fated crew of the Icarus II. Apparently, an early draft of the script included a love scene between Murphy and Byrne’s characters, but watching the final film now it’s easy to see why it was cut. The movie does enough to establish that they have a closer connection to each other than the rest of the group, but that isn’t at the cost of giving the audience opportunity to care about everyone else. What really elevates the crew out of one-dimensional sci-fi stereotypes is the cast themselves. In the hands of lesser actors, Sunshine could have run the risk of coming off too boring or not substantial enough in regards to the plot. The strong performances alone are what will likely keep Sunshine among the ranks of severely underrated sci-fi movies for years to come.
Even if you haven’t seen Sunshine, you’ve probably at least heard some of its score elsewhere. Originally composed for the movie by John Murphy, the track “Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor)” has been used in tons of other media over the years, popping up in trailers for films like Ready Player One, Star Trek: Into Darkness and X-Men: Days of Future Past, as well as several episodes of The Walking Dead. Murphy worked on the score with electronic music band Underworld, but due to some ensuing legal troubles most of the soundtrack can be a little difficult to get your hands on aside from the previously mentioned track. However, it speaks to the impact of this movie’s music that you can still hear its most recognizable theme over ten years after it was first composed.
Sunshine isn’t the first sci-fi movie that follows a condemned space team on a dangerous mission, and it definitely won’t be the last considering how many times the "space exploration gone wrong" trope has been recycled since its release. It’s not flawless, either; the third act revolves around the sudden interference of an insane crew member from the first Icarus ship who seems hellbent on sabotaging this second mission as part of a twisted religious adherence, and that inexplicably launches the plot closer towards space horror territory rather than a more grounded sci-fi story. Once that happens, the speed of Sunshine changes — and not necessarily for the better. However, the stellar acting from the film's cast is what ultimately carries the story in spite of its uneven pacing.
If you’re curious about checking out more of Garland’s earlier work after enjoying Annihilation, definitely see this film. On a superficial note, if you want to watch the Scarecrow, Steve Rogers, Moira MacTaggert, Wong, Musashi and Philippa Georgiou travel into outer space to try and resurrect the sun in order to save humanity, Sunshine is the underrated sci-fi gem you should be watching.