This is a riff on a review I posted a week or two ago on BlogCritics. I'm going to cut some of the review fat and elaborate on the philosophical theme a little. Be warned... there are no explicit spoilers, but I've been fairly liberal in alluding to plot points.
Danny Boyle's current film, running on a lower profile than some of his previous work, is a sci-fi thriller called Sunshine. Like Boyle's other films, like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, Sunshine is about a traumatic experience that taxes both the mind and the body. The Earth is at the mercy of a dying galaxy, and a small crew of a ship called the Icarus II is charged with piloting an apocalyptic bomb into the sun in order to restart its fusion mechanisms.
Boyle flaunts his influences. At times, the film seems like a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially during the first half, when the imagery is dominated by slow, balletic interstellar maneuvers and stunning lights and colors. This half of the film is also when the psychological elements are most developed, and it’s this first half that audiences should remember most fondly. This also may be when Boyle seems most an artist: the visuals are unique, sublime, and engaging, and the film looks like it might develop as a ghostly portrait of a crew, rather than as a horror sci-fi scramble.
After the first hour, there’s a key change in tone and pace, and Sunshine becomes less about psychological balance and nuance and more about tension and claustrophobia. The key scene, where the transition takes place, is the crew’s exploration of another ship, the Icarus I, and this scene is punctuated by one of the most ruthless little cinematic tricks available to the filmmaker (a trick popularized by Tyler Durden in Fight Club). This tense, ghostly stretch is where the film breaks down into certain accepted horror conventions.
Reviewers reacted both positively and negatively to this shift. Certain horror aficionados simply didn't find it stimulating enough, and others saw it as eccentric and indecisive. However, as I turn my thoughts back to the film, I can see that it was a whole structure, designed with a creative vision behind it. And I think this vision is centered around a traditional philosophical concept in art called the sublime (also addressed in detail on Wikipedia).
The sublime, according to traditional aesthetic philosophy, is the pleasure derived from regarding nature and not being able to fully understand or assimilate it... the pleasure of being overwhelmed. The better-known philosophers differentiated this sharply from beauty, which could be represented and appreciated by human faculties (i.e. a painting could be beautiful, but it could not be sublime). The sublime is linked with an almost masochistic pleasure, because it usually goes hand-in-hand with a degree of danger, or lurking fear of the unknowable.
For the first half of Sunshine, the sublime was certainly a theme. The characters were reaching toward the sun, intellectually and sometimes physically, and it was almost within their grasp. The earliest deaths in the film are the result of the astronauts letting the beauty of the sun overtake them. They are all overwhelmed by it... it undercuts their powers of reason and invades their dreams.
The first half of Sunshine is a distillation of sublime reflections... it's taken its cues from Kubrick's masterpiece, and it's turned them outward, so the cold, dispirited emptiness of the characters in 2001 is replaced with the hopeful sadness and resignation of the crew of the Icarus II. However, this tone changes dramatically after the crew visits the Icarus I. At this point, the film's psychology shifts from disconnected reflection on nature to the sliding terror of a mission going out of control. The Icarus I seems to represent the danger of losing yourself in your reverence.
If the change in pacing and atmosphere aren't enough, we're introduced to a character who has most certainly slid from veneration into obsession, inhumanity, and madness. Okay, so he isn't developed as a character, so much. Rather, he sweeps through the second half of the film as a sermonizing force of nature, an obstacle that the crew has to deal with to complete their mission. He's hardly even shown on screen, except shrouded in low-lit film grain or obscured in shaky camera motion blur. In this sense, it's not quite a horror film, because the horrifying figure is never shown... he stays a figment, an embodiment of the desperate gravity of the situation.
Ultimately, I think it's the deaths in Sunshine that bring out this theme, and bring unity to the whole thing. The first and last deaths are sad, but they're also celebrations, as characters stand before the overwhelming power of nature and let it snuff them out. It's worth noting that almost all the deaths are either the characters burning up, or freezing to death, either under the sun's gaze or in its absence. The film is poised on the edge between beauty and terror... an edge represented by the sublime in all its philosophical incarnations.
And Danny Boyle makes a noble effort to approach this unapproachable ideal, in all its metaphysical impossibility.