Sci-fi movies usually come equipped with enough meaningless jargon to fill a nerd's pocket dictionary. But few are as packed with techno-babble as director Danny Boyle's first journey into outer space, the ambitious Sunshine. For an hour or so, lines about "the complexities of the payload delivery," or how "the high-frequency bursts will rise above the surface," or such pressing questions as "once we break that shield, how are we going to re-pressurize?" will make anyone long for the cutesy efficiency of "You had me at 'Hello.'"
If you set aside all of Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland's attempts at futuristic realism and hallucinogenic atmosphere, the movie is more or less like any other space adventure to come down the pike since 2001, or at least the first Alien movie. Sunshine has a simple, streamlined plot, some seriously cool audiovisual gimmicks and at least three very good performances. That's the good news, at least. The bad news is that it takes a while for the plot to kick in, the editing is so frenetic that you might not know what the hell is happening at any given time and there are five other actors in the main cast.
A sort of snooty, college-educated British cousin to the testosterone-soaked action of Armageddon, Sunshine hits many of the same beats as its Hollywood predecessor, but cloaks its basic narrative in a haze of trippy images. Where Bruce Willis once led a ragtag team of pilots into space to drill apart an Earth-shattering meteoroid, now the Irish actor Cillian Murphy leads a bickering multinational crew of astronauts directly into the core of the sun, where they hope to explode some bombs to keep it burning for a few more years. The differences between the two movies can be summed up by glancing at their leading men: buff, brawny and brainless, versus sensitive, simmering and soulful. Most sci-fi action heroes have chips on their shoulders the size of satellites, but Murphy is so thin and reedy, there isn't enough room on his frame for so much as an empty backpack.
As Capa, the resident physicist on the Icarus II, he coolly negotiates the group's ultra-dangerous flight into the searing star, butting heads occasionally with meathead engineer Mace (Fantastic 4's Chris Evans); although, truth be told, it takes a reasonable suspension of disbelief to watch the 98-pound geek attempt a fistfight with the hulking fratboy. They and the rest of the crew (the best of whom include Crouching Tiger's Michelle Yeoh and Troy's Rose Byrne) have a right to be tense: There's a sense that even if the mission is successful, the crew will perish in the attempt. Add to that the freaky discovery of the long-lost Icarus I space station, and you have all the ingredients for mutiny among the already on-edge shipmates.
For the first half of Sunshine, you might wonder what happened to the resourceful, fleet-footed director of 28 Days Later. Boyle has given up the hand-held thrills of that genre exercise for the ambient, chilly feel of Kubrick. It's not the most original vision of the late-21st century, but he does come up with some convincing high-tech gadgetry, and he layers the sound design with increasingly scary computer hiss and static. And if the director lingers during the early scenes to the point of pretension, he makes up for it with a slam-bang finale, in which a menacing wraith with a god complex infiltrates the crew. Boyle may be a distinctly hit-or-miss filmmaker; it's clear at this point he may never re-create the rush of his breakthrough, Trainspotting. But as long as he keeps working with the always-interesting Murphy and doesn't forget that a little zombie-like action can perk up even the most ponderous narrative it's fun watching him try to top himself.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.