The characters in a Danny Boyle film are on a bad trip again. Only it's not drugs, as in Trainspotting. It's a voyage to re-ignite the sun, the dying star in Sunshine.
"Any space movie ultimately has an almost hallucinogenic flavor," Boyle says. "What you're looking at is so unknowingly powerful, vast and impossible that it stretches the mind."
The 50-year-old director has found a comfort zone in science fiction. His shrewd 28 Days Later made it safe for zombies to walk the streets again.
Now he is re-injecting a bit of reality into the galactic adventure, without fuzzy creatures who speak English. He interviewed NASA astronauts and ground crews. That got him two-thirds of the way.
"You try to make as many decisions bedrocked in science as possible," he says by phone. "Then, the story takes over. Anytime you get anywhere near the sun, as NASA admits, nobody really knows. You can guess. In fact, NASA reads the science fiction writers as much as they influence science fiction writers."
Boyle leans toward 2001: A Space Odyssey as inspiration. Though modest by fantasy standards, the $40 million budget of Sunshine, which opens here today, is a huge jump from the boys-find-money tale of 2004's Millions, his previous film. Studio executives were baffled that Boyle would tackle such quaintness after his 28 Days Later, made for $9 million, pocketed $45 million in the U.S. alone. The suits wanted another economically priced horror movie. They were equally dubious this time around, when he proposed a science-fiction adventure that wouldn't break the bank.
Oddly, the Manchester, England-born filmmaker has always professed an attraction to the American blockbuster. Sure, he got sand kicked in his face directing The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio. (He admits now that he could have done it for far less than the money thrown at it.) Yet he once spoke of the little man on one shoulder telling him to reach for the cineplex while the other reminds him that he has excelled in works "lower on the radar."
Consider Sunshine in the middle. Boyle set aside some of the special effects budget to be spent on real effects on the set, to keep the actors from becoming prey to the blue-screen syndrome of "either falling asleep or overacting." To simulate a scene in which Cillian Murphy's physicist gets an uncomfortable eyeful of the fiery orb, Boyle flashed a stadium-strength panel of bulbs into his eyes.
The movie avoids the American disaster genre, keeping the tension bound to the spaceship Icarus II, which carries a bomb that will blast the sun into new radiance.
The mission follows in the wake of the original Icarus, which vanished into the void years earlier. Murphy (Red Eye) and Michelle Yeoh (Memoirs of a Geisha) are among the bigger names in an international cast.
By the time the astronauts get to Mercury, all hell is breaking loose. (Who says that in space no one can hear you scream?) The decision about which crew members must die to save oxygen becomes as critical as how to deliver the nuclear payload.
"A wonderful moment for all of us little democrats really," Boyle says. "I love those extreme scenarios, and I hope people ask themselves, 'What would I do?'"
The morality is unavoidable for Boyle, a once-devout Catholic who was dissuaded by a local clergyman from pursuing the priesthood. Now the father of children ages 16, 18 and 22, he is convinced the future will require precise caretaking. Sunshine poses the possibility of the anti-greenhouse effect - the freezing of Earth.
But in any environmental crisis, the director says, it will take more than faith to save us.
"The film is about science getting us out of trouble," he says.
"It enforces how fragile everything is. Our tenure here will be enhanced and protected by science. For all its drawbacks, it's a wonderful thing."
Boyle returns to cuddlier matters in his next feature, Slumdog Millionaire, about an illiterate kid who becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to impress a girl. The radical shift enables the filmmaker to creatively keep reaching for the stars.
"I'm not being perverse," he says. "It does help you that you have to go back to the drawing board a bit. You literally don't build on any skills you might have gained. I love that.
"It's healthy for you. You don't know the rules. You have to learn them again. I always think your first film is often your best film because you really don't know what you're doing. There's an innocence about that, and if it can be captured here and there, it's really good."
Ron Dicker writes for the Hartford Courant.