As the movie opens, we’re about 50 years in the future. The sun is dying, plunging Earth into a nuclear winter. A crew of seven aboard the Icarus II named after the mythological figure who died flying too close to the sun launches a mission to save the Earth. The ship carries a bomb about the size of Manhattan; the payload is constructed inside a large disc at the front of the ship (looks like a gigantic contact lens) that shields the ship from the sun’s rays as the ship travels closer. The physicist who built the payload, Capa (Cillian Murphy), explains in a voice-over that the Icarus II is the second ship to attempt this mission. Eight years ago, the original Icarus departed for the sun, but no one knows what happened to it. All communications were lost.
Aboard the Icarus II, we see the ship’s doctor and psychologist, Searle (Cliff Curtis), who appears to be more fascinated with the sun’s power than is healthy. He sits in an observation room containing a huge window looking out at the sun. The crew can communicate with “Icarus,” the ship’s computer, much like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Searle asks “Icarus” to dim the shields so he can view more of the sun’s brightness. The ship tells him at the level he requests, he will go blind but she can adjust them to a more tolerable level for 30 seconds. He puts on his sunglasses and tells her to go ahead. Even at 30 seconds, the brightness is almost unbearable but Searle likes it.
Over a meal, Searle describes the experience to the rest of the crew, which includes Capa; two women, Cassie (Rose Byrne) and Corazon (Michelle Yeoh); Mace (Chris Evans); Trey (Benedict Wong); the second-in-command, Harvey (Troy Garity); and the captain, Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada). Searle tries to explain that viewing the sun’s brightness made him feel like he was part of it the opposite of being surrounded by complete darkness. Before the crew finishes their meal, Kaneda remarks that they are ahead of their flight schedule and will soon be entering a blackout zone where they will have no communication with Earth. Anyone wanting to send a message home should do so right away.
We see Capa inside the message booth, taking a while to compose his thoughts to his parents and sister. He explains how the payload will work, that he knows they are proud of him, and that if they are successful in their mission, people on Earth should see the results within eight minutes of the explosion. “So if you wake up one morning and it's a particularly beautiful day, you'll know we made it,” he said. He also says he will see them in about three years, the length of the trip home.
Unfortunately, Capa takes too long, so Mace can’t send off a message to his loved ones. He attacks Capa and they get into a brawl. Mace is ordered to see Searle, who prescribes two hours inside the “Earth room,” where he can see images from Earth, to calm down.
The next few scenes set up life on the ship. Corazon takes care of the “oxygen garden,” where plants breed enough oxygen to sustain everyone on board. Cassie and Capa run tests on the payload. Cassie admits she is afraid. Capa said he’s not; as he hits a button, the test develops tiny sparks, like stars, inside the payload. Capa said he thinks creating a new star inside the dying one will be beautiful.
Even so, he has dreams where he is plunging into the surface of the sun. Cassie tells him she has the same dream too, every time she shuts her eyes.
Icarus II then picks up a distress beacon from the original Icarus. The crew is astonished that the beacon would still sound after eight years. They plot their trajectory for the mission and the location of the original Icarus and learn they will pass within something like 300 yards of the original ship (I don’t remember the exact distance, but it’s fairly close). The crew is torn over whether to divert from their original course to investigate. Mace is against it. Searle, whose face is peeling with sun damage by now from repeated sun-gazing, suggests they investigate because the original Icarus, like their ship, also carried a payload, which could increase their chances of success. Kaneda lets the decision rest with Capa, the physicist. Capa retreats to review his calculations. He tells Kaneda that once the payload enters the sun’s atmosphere, he has no idea what will happen; it’s all theory. He admits that Searle is probably right; two “last best hopes” are better than one.
Trey is assigned to adjust the ship’s course to rendezvous with the original Icarus. He is focused on so many details that he fails to adjust the outside shield (the gigantic disc containing the payload) by a small degree. Alarms blare within the ship, and “Icarus” the computer cannot correct the damage. Kaneda, as the captain, volunteers to go outside and survey the damage. He asks for a volunteer to accompany him. Mace volunteers Capa, blaming Capa for opting to veer from the original course.
Kaneda and Capa suit up. Cassie takes the helm manually from “Icarus” the computer. She tilts the ship in such a manner to offer Kaneda and Capa the most shade possible. Four panels on the shield are damaged. As Kaneda and Capa begin fixing them, one of the ship’s communication towers swings out from behind the safety of the shield (because of the new angle) and burns off. As it continues to spark, it swings around the oxygen garden, torching all the plants inside. “Icarus” the computer decides to take control from Cassie. The computer says that their angle is too severe and places the entire mission and safety of the ship in jeopardy. No one can override the computer, so Cassie urges Kaneda and Capa to get back. Knowing the shield panels must be repaired, Kaneda orders Capa to leave, which Capa does, reluctantly. He barely makes it back inside as the ship returns to its regular position, the sun’s power burning Kaneda.
With Kaneda dead, Harvey assumes command. Trey is sedated, because he is suicidal that his mistake cost the captain his life. Harvey said given the current damage aboard their ship, they have no choice now but to rendezvous with the original Icarus and try to salvage whatever food and oxygen they can.
Cassie and Corazon pilot the ship as the men board the original Icarus; they link up the two ships and walk through the airlock. Inside the original Icarus, dust covers everything. The men split up to search the ship. Harvey, overjoyed, finds the ship’s oxygen garden, growing unchecked and beautiful. Mace finds the piloting computer has been sabotaged. He finds a recorded message from the ship’s log of the original captain, Pinbacker, who had some sort of religious epiphany and decided to abort the mission, saying that if God wanted the sun and everyone on Earth to die, who was he to intervene? “That make sense to anybody?” Mace asks.
Searle finds the ship’s crew, frozen skeletons in their observation room. They had removed the shield and burned to death under the sun’s rays. He calls to the others about the discovery. As they try to make sense of the apparent suicides, the Icarus II suddenly detaches from the original Icarus. No one knows what caused this to happen. Cassie and Corazon radio the others to say the damage is such, they can’t reattach. The mission appears doomed.
Mace, the pragmatist, finds one space suit in the airlock of the original Icarus and decides that Capa should have it to jet over to the Icarus II and complete the mission. Capa is the physicist and the one who will detonate the payload. Harvey balks at this (not a lot of strength in the second-in-command). Searle notices that someone will have to open the airlock door for them manually because the computer on the original Icarus is busted. He opts to stay behind. Mace and Harvey wrap themselves in whatever insulation they can find and clutch the arms of Capa, inside the spacesuit. Searle opens the door and the three fly out, across to the airlock of the Icarus II.
It is freezing in space, and Mace and Harvey must hold their breath. The three men slam into the Icarus II, and Harvey breaks free, flying into space, frozen. Capa manages to yank Mace inside. Cassie and Corazon rush over with medical supplies. Mace has severe frostbite on one hand but otherwise seems OK.
On board the original Icarus, Searle sits in the observation room with the burned-up remains of the original crew. He puts on his sunglasses as Cassie radios that they love him and are thinking of him and pulls away. The sunlight flooding the observation room burns Searle alive.
Back aboard the Icarus II, Corazon becomes practical and notes that, as upset as they are over losing their crewmates, their deaths have increased their oxygen supply. If Trey were to die, they would have enough oxygen to complete the mission and return to Earth. She doesn’t outright suggest they kill Trey, but Mace gets the message and says they must take a vote. Capa says one life is not worth the lives of everyone they are trying to save on Earth. Cassie cries and says she won’t vote for it but she’s outvoted. She asks Mace to at least find some kindness in how he does it.
Mace goes into the medical ward to find two scalpels missing, along with Trey. He then finds Trey with one scalpel, on the floor of the Earth room. Trey has slit his arms and killed himself. Mace calls the others to the ward. He touches the blood pooling on the floor and smears it on Capa’s hand, saying that’s where it belongs. The men get into a fistfight again and Corazon breaks it up, saying they must conserve oxygen.
We next see Capa inside the payload to run another test. “Icarus” the computer says she has calculated that they won’t survive long enough to deliver the payload, because they don’t have enough oxygen for five crew members. Capa is bewildered. What do you mean five? Who is the fifth crew member? he asks. She says it is unknown.
At this point, we realize that someone got off the original Icarus and sabotaged the airlock when the two ships were joined. Capa finds the intruder the original captain, Pinbacker inside the observation room looking at the sun. The man is a mess. He’s nothing but sinew and muscle and bone; most of his skin has burned off. And he’s crazy. “Are you an angel?” he asks Capa, before slicing him across the chest with the scalpel from the medical ward. Capa manages to flee, but Pinbacker locks him inside the airlock.
Pinbacker then goes after the others, determined to sabotage this mission as he did the last one. (You wonder if he killed the crew of the original Icarus, or if they did all kill themselves.) He finds Corazon in the remains of the oxygen garden, where she is touched to find a small sprout has survived the fire. He stabs her in the chest and poses her sitting with the tiny plant in her hands.
Pinbacker then turns off the cooling system, causing “Icarus” the computer to malfunction. As Mace tries to determine what’s wrong, he sees on a screen that Capa is trapped in the airlock. He raises Capa on the radio and explains the computer is being sabotaged. Capa tells him that it’s the original captain. Mace goes down to the computer’s cooling level and dives into the frigid water with a wrench to manually lower the computer towers. It is physically taxing him to be so cold. His leg catches on one of the towers, and he is trapped. He radios Capa and tells him he must complete the mission and launch the payload manually. He urges Capa to do it.
Meanwhile, Pinbacker closes in on Cassie. She retreats inside the payload/shield, where he follows.
Capa puts on a space suit and uses the outside airlock door to blow open the door inside (which would have killed Corazon and Mace if they weren’t dead already). He sees their bodies as he walks through the ship. He manually detaches the payload from the ship, then opens the outside door and jets over several feet to the outside door of the payload, remembering his and Cassie’s dreams about the surface of the sun. He opens the door of the payload just as the payload’s rockets start plunging it toward the sun’s surface.
Inside, Capa finds Cassie barely alive and Pinbacker. They struggle, but as the payload enters the sun, everything rumbles and becomes distorted. Capa manages to make it to a catwalk where he initiates the launch. He sees a wall of fire coming toward him as behind him the sparks of the explosion begin. For a moment he is caught between them, frozen in time, and holds out his hand to the fiery wall. It’s beautiful.
In the last frames, we see Earth, frozen in snow. Two children play outside. It looks like Australia, by the dome in Sydney Harbor. Capa’s sister is receiving his message that he sent before the Icarus II lost communications. The sun is a dim disc in the sky. She urges the children to come inside. Suddenly, there’s a flash and the sun grows brighter, showering Earth with sunshine.
They made it.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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50 years into the future, the sun is starting to cool down, leaving the earth to die slowly in solar winter. The Icarus II mission is launched to restart the sun with a huge load of plutonium. This is the second mission to restart the sun, the first mission (Icarus I) was sent 7 years earlier but it had lost contact with Earth. The ship is manned by 8 crew members, each a specialist in some field. The crew arrive close to the sun to find the Icarus I. It turns out the Icarus I was sabotaged by its captain (he went mad) and he was still alive aboard the ship after 7 years. He sneaks aboard and tries to sabotage Icarus I, as well as killing off some crew members. The remaining crew are finally able to launch the warhead towards the sun (with themselves in it). The captain from Icarus I tries to stop them, but the payload specialist is able to activate the bomb at the last minute and the warhead detonates.
8 minutes later, back on earth, a woman and her children witness the sun and sky brighten.
Re-cap: Everyone dies, but they succeed in fixing the sun.
Thanks for the CUT TO THE CHASE, Will!
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