— The true star of the movie (Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Cillian Murphy as hero physicist Capa (Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Capa, wounded in the Icarus II, struggles down the corridor (Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures)
It is 2057, and you're being sent on a mission to the Sun, to save our ailing star from imminent death. Probably the one name you shouldn't give your spaceship in this circumstance is Icarus, after the mythical Greek boy who died after flying too close to the Sun.
So, when we find ourselves aboard Icarus II at the start of director Danny Boyle's glittering new film Sunshine, we pretty well know that the mission won't go as planned.
Icarus II the first ship having mysteriously failed the same mission several years before is staffed with the sort of motley crew that you'll be familiar with from Alien, or pretty much any space-mission film. Theres the charismatic captain, the sensitive (and attractive) woman officer, the macho guy. The team are charged with the task of launching a bomb the size of Manhattan island and made of dark matter and uranium into the Sun.
Now at this point, we'd usually sit back, forget about the "science" and just enjoy a good space yarn. But Sunshine's producers have been promoting the fact that the film was made with the help of physicist Brian Cox from Manchester University in the UK, and even held a press event at CERN in Switzerland, the site of the Large Hadron Collider and a Mecca for physicists. So New Scientist was excited and encouraged to discover how the science would be presented in the film.
How did it do?
Well, it's true that the Sun is expected to die, but not for five billion years or so. That, says Cox, is too far in the future for audiences to be able to relate to. By setting the action just 50 years in the future, when for example we see the roof of Australia's Sydney Opera House poking from a huge ice sheet, it gives us something we can worry about.
Cox and his CERN colleagues had to come up with an explanation for how the Sun could be failing so far ahead of time. It was like: 'the Sun is going to die in 50 years, think of something, will you?' says Cox. The something involves a "Q ball", the nucleus of a supersymmetric particle, getting itself lodged in the Sun. The hypothetical Q ball eats through normal matter, ripping apart the Sun's neutrons and protons and converting them into supersymmetric particles.
Do such Q balls exist? We don't know, but CERN are planning to search for them, says Cox. (According to physicists this week, Q Balls may have been discovered in a superfluid, but don't worry, it's highly unlikely that such a Q ball would ever get stuck in the Sun).
So much for the science lets skip over questions of how gravity was generated inside the ship and how the ship survives the intense solar wind and heat close to the Sun is the film worth watching?
Well, it's certainly beautiful to look at. The Sun itself is magnificent, and an ever-present force. The movie's website has several clips, so you can judge for yourself.
But we were disappointed by the films failure to generate any real psychological tension or mystery and were left confused as to what was happening towards the end. Essentially, the wax holding the film together started to melt. Are we actually inside Icarus I or Icarus II, or an escape pod? Riding on the bomb into the Sun? What is the bomb anyway?
Kudos to Cillian Murphy for his portrayal of Capa the hero physicist, but the real star of this film? The Sun, of course.
Sunshine is released in the UK on April 5. The US release date is unknown at time of posting.