Soon after having made his second film, the exuberant drug-addiction drama "Trainspotting," Danny Boyle got a lucrative offer from 20th Century Fox to direct the fourth installment in the "Alien" franchise.
The British filmmaker was understandably flattered but politely and gratefully turned the offer down. "I had only made two low-budget movies at that time, and I didn't think I could handle the scale of such a big film," Boyle said. "In addition, I didn't want to deal with a studio looking after its franchise and trying to protect it."
Ten years later, Boyle now has his own science-fiction adventure, one made on his iconoclastic terms. "Sunshine," about a space expedition to rekindle a dying sun, has plenty of visual razzle-dazzle and visceral thrills. But it is also a surprisingly metaphysical headtrip, a big-budget popcorn movie that recalls "Alien" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" in equal measure.
Boyle cites those two films as primary influences on "Sunshine"; another is Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 sci-fi epic "Solaris," a slow, dense movie so aggressively anti-commercial that even a more audience-friendly, 2002 George Clooney-Steven Soderbergh remake flopped.
That's not to suggest Boyle, 50, has gone all arthouse. The Manchester, England, native has purposely never made a movie that wasn't instantly accessible. "I want my films to play as widely as possible. I don't want them to be art movies that get a lot of critical praise, but nobody goes to see them. That's a big benefit of using genres like science-fiction and horror, because they allow you to make movies people want to see, but you can do really original stuff with them."
The $45 million "Sunshine," which marks Boyle's third collaboration with novelist-screenwriter Alex Garland (after "The Beach" and "28 Days Later"), has no shortage of spectacular sequences and giant-scale visuals. But its primary focus is on what transpires inside the heads of its characters, the astronauts aboard the sun-bound Icarus II, burdened with the responsibility of a probable suicide mission that is mankind's last hope for survival.
Inevitably, things go wrong as the ship nears its target, causing some of the astronauts to lose their clinical cool _ along with their minds. "Sunshine's" examination of human behavior in an enclosed, high-pressure environment is reminiscent of Boyle's first film, 1994's "Shallow Grave," a taut thriller about three roommates who end up trying to murder each other over a stolen suitcase of money.
In fact, Boyle says his favorite moment in "Sunshine" is a dialogue-driven scene in which the astronauts, after an accident that damages their ship, debate whether or not to murder a crewmate in order to ensure they have enough oxygen on board to complete their mission.
"Very often, when you trap people in a stale, tense environment, their morality starts to swing all over the place," Boyle said. "From a logical perspective, it's easy to sacrifice one life for the sake of millions. But are you personally prepared to do it yourself?
"And if you think about world history, especially Europe, that's a very dangerous line of thinking. What starts as a rational decision can easily end in horror."
"Sunshine," too, takes an unexpected veer toward horror-film territory in its third act, a somewhat jarring plot twist reminiscent of how the zombie romp "28 Days Later" became a cautionary tale about the military and martial law in its last third.
"A lot of people who read the script said it felt like a completely different movie," Boyle said of the third-act surprise, which some viewers will also dismiss as completely implausible. "But it felt very natural to me. I believe there should always be a moment in a movie where you risk everything, and the entire story changes. I've always made movies that way.
"And we vetted everything in the script with NASA for plausibility, and they admitted that after a certain point - once you hit the wall of what modern science can conclusively prove - no one knows what could or could not happen. They turn to science-fiction writers after a certain point, because it's the thinkers who generate ideas."
Like other timeless science-fiction tales, "Sunshine" attempts to visualize the unknowable, whether it's what the surface of the sun actually looks like up close or whether even the most clinical, research-driven scientist would be susceptible to a spiritual epiphany when confronted with a sight too awesome to comprehend.
"Alex is a pretty adamant atheist, but I'm not confident," Boyle said. "I wanted to stay open to the idea of the journey of the soul, because it could mean something very different than what the characters feel on a physical level. It's really about wonder and humility.
"A lot of the scientists we met with say you have to stay open to everything because as much as we know, we still don't know everything."
OTHER SPACESHIPS, OTHER CREWS
The sun-bound crew members of "Sunshine's" Icarus II know they're on a one-way ride, and their moods - somber, intent and more than a little sardonic - set the tone for the entire film. Here's a look at the crews of other well-known spaceships from movies and TV:
"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968): Befitting the headiest, most cerebral sci-fi trip ever filmed, the crew of the S.S. Discovery is so robotic and mechanical, the most personable entity aboard the ship is a computer named HAL.
"Alien" (1979): Director Ridley Scott resisted the temptation to give the men and women aboard the mining ship Nostromo likable quirks and tics. That realism is one of the reasons the movie remains so frightening today.
"Star Wars" (1977): They were never technically a crew per say. But whenever Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca and those two droids found themselves aboard the same ship, it usually resulted in some of the best scenes from the original trilogy.
"Firefly" (1999): Writer-director Joss Whedon described his concept for the TV show (and 2005 spin-off movie) as a western in outer space, which is why the motley crew of the transport ship Serenity would blend right in on an episode of "Deadwood" (well, everyone except the psychic).
"Star Trek" (1966): Carefully chosen to reflect the civil-rights minded era in which it was created, the multiethnic, multiracial crew of the Starship Enterprise was good enough to survive cheesy special effects, William Shatner's acting and even cancellation.