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Sun Spotting

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When Jim Morrison wrote "Waiting for the Sun" back in 1968, he couldn't possibly have imagined, even in his enhanced cosmic state, Cillian Murphy rejoicing at the center of our heavenly fireball, bowing equally to the "Matrix" and the acid-esque trip at the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey." The moment, which begs to be made fun of, would actually fare better accompanied by Morrison's song. Instead, "Sunshine," about astronauts trying to fix the sun, is determinedly solemn, set to a spacey rock soundtrack meant to enhance the metaphysical mood.

Though competently made and brimming with the kind of visual innovation the filmmakers -- "28 Days Later" director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland — are known for, "Sunshine" is at its best moments a gripping, if dated, action-adventure flick. But too often it's just silly, relying too heavily on better sci-fi movies that preceded it.

An ungenerous person might be tempted to write it off as "2001" meets "Armageddon." The crew members of the Icarus II starship float through a philosophically and visually dense soup as they meander toward the sun to save the earth. The sun, we are told, is dying, leaving life on our planet in the slow death of an ice age. The only hope is to scrape together all the fissile material on the planet and plunge it into the sun in the hopes of — the strain of everyone suspending any disbelief at once is difficult — "reigniting" it. But if you think the premise is tough, wait until you meet the pilots and scientists, who would be more convincing as the crew at the local Gap than as interplanetary voyagers.

In fact, "Sunshine," with its goopy score and relentless close-ups, might have been better off condensed as a hit rock video for your favorite indie band, so scruffy are the astronauts aboard and so mopey is their demeanor. All, that is, except the hunky and inexplicably cast Chris Evans, last seen in "Fantastic Four 2." He's always arguing jockishly with the crew physicist, the person in charge of the actual bomb and leader by default.

Sticking to their intent to showcase only young (and presumably low-paid) up-and-comers, the filmmakers picked Murphy, the tender-footed hero from "28 Days Later," as their world-weary old doc. One supposes they hoped his piercing blue eyes and chiseled features would cause anyone with misgivings at his age and appearance to forget that he looks more like the ship's pool boy.

Boyle and Garland mix with this concoction every sci-fi stereotype and genre trope in the galaxy along with a few barely believable plot twists of their own. The Icarus II obviously follows a predecessor, and the mystery of what happened to Icarus I adds to the tension as the crew hurdles to the increasingly sinister orb that is their goal. As in countless movies before it, in "Sunshine" mishaps accrue and the astronauts are picked off one by one.

A friend of mine who defends the movie keeps pointing out that Boyle, credited for reigniting the zombie movie if not the sun, is not known for his aversion to wacky premises. He also manages to make them highly enjoyable. While this is true, Boyle is also known for twisting his material into something new and exciting. "Sunshine" struck me as boldly going where we've been many times before. The casual borrowings are legion, but most obviously pilfered is Stanley Kubrick's iconic space yarn.

The best thing about "Sunshine" is that it never abandons the spookiness of hurtling ever farther away from the relative safety of home. This is a mood central to all good frontier stories, whether they're set in outer space or underwater. If you can watch the movie simply as a thriller, it suffices. But it's difficult to ignore that Boyle and Garland themselves are grasping for more. The smell of arrogance is palpable, and one gets the sense that Boyle and Garland will emerge, though likely intact, with their wings slightly singed. (R) 107 min. S

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