“In the face of this, we are dust, nothing more”
Although not quite as elegant as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Danny’s Boyle’s Sunshine still holds up as one of the finest science-fiction films of the last thirty years. The narrative is conventional, but the film transcends its conventions by giving us an intensely visceral and poetic experience. The CGI doesn’t have that distracting synthetic quality that mars so many special-effects films, and the success of the effects rests on the weight and purpose lurking in the sounds and textures. These sounds and textures in Sunshine—and the universe they suggest—are trying to tell us something.
As these things go, we have a crew with a mission, on-board rivalries, an answered signal that throws the mission off-course, and a final showdown before the mission is saved. We’ve seen these elements before—Alien, 2001, Solaris, Event Horizon; it’s a standard framework, but within it, Boyle crafts a meditative and persuasive adventure. Screenwriter Alex Garland and Boyle borrow from many classics of the genre, but these patterns are merely structural. Anyone familiar with fractal theory will understand that all of the varied and unique organic forms in the universe can be described by one very simple self-replicating formula.
The premise of Sunshine is, as the genre demands, ambitious—flying a ship up to a dying sun to deliver a bomb that will reignite it—but there is a disarming intimacy that undergirds the fantastic elements of the story. Each of the characters connects to their function on the ship in a personal and sensual way. Searle, the psychiatrist, stares into the approaching sun obsessively, trying to discover its secret and the hold it has on our imaginations. Capa, a physicist, shuts himself up with the bomb he will eventually deploy, testing it over and over again, transfixed by the tiny controlled explosions. Corazon, in charge of maintaining oxygen levels, tends to the plants of the oxygen garden, caressing the vegetation that is keeping them alive. The technology of the film is defined by the sensual experience of the characters’ relationship to it. The ship becomes an extension of them, and when it is wounded—from a reflected ray of sunshine blasting into the oxygen garden, causing a severe fire—it is as if the characters themselves have been burned. The film acknowledges this very real phenomenon—our being does extend beyond our own bodies. When we are in a car that is rear-ended, we say: “Someone hit me.” Not my car—Me. This notion, taken to a logical extreme, gives weight and substance to the surrealist climax of the film: Capa, having ignited the bomb that breaths new life into our sun, reaches out and caresses the explosion and, figuratively, the face of the sun. It would be a shame to fixate on the absurdity and dismiss this moment; Boyle is offering us an experience of glory—intimate and fanciful.
There is a quiet desperation to the film’s final moments. Despite our hope for a tidier ending, the characters are aware and accepting of the fact that they are most likely going to die. There is a wonderful scene where the crew has a vote to decide the fate of a crewmember, Trey—the ship’s engineer—who has been drugged and in a state of depression since he caused the mishap that began the downfall of the mission. The crew must lose one more set of lungs to ensure enough oxygen to complete the mission, and he seems to be the least useful of the remaining team. In an act of defiance, one character, Cassie, votes down the decision to kill him. When challenged, she tells them:
“I know the argument. I know the logic. You’re saying you need my vote. I’m saying you can’t have it.”
It is a tense moment. Cassie knows that he must die, and ultimately that they all must die, but all she has in that moment is her choice. It is her final chance to let them know who she is and what she stands for. It is this empowering notion of choice that fuels the final confrontation between Pinbacker and Capa in the closing moments of the film.
The last act of Sunshine is often criticized for its discontinuity—the claim being that it suddenly becomes schlock horror with the monster-like Pinbacker chasing our characters through the darkened ship. The tone of the film does shift dramatically in this final section, but the jarring shift is not disruptive; it serves the story well. Throughout the first two thirds, the characters do a lot of talking—voting, discussing, and weighing of possibilities—which gives the film a decidedly democratic and legislative feel. Suddenly, when the fate of humanity is truly on the line, there is no time for such deliberation; action must be taken—quickly and purposefully.
Pinbacker is often dismissed as a cartoonish genre gimmick, but his plight is far more complex. He has some grand notions about himself, and his motivations seem demented and ridiculous—he wants to let the sun die, and all of humanity with it. While keeping him enigmatic, the film does suggest his humanity. He was the captain of the first Icarus—an unfortunately prophetic name for the ship—which somehow didn’t complete the mission. We glimpse moments of captured video from his final log which reveal that he has had some sort of epiphany regarding humanity and its end:
“Our star is dying. All our science. All our hopes… our dreams, are foolish! In the face of this, we are dust, nothing more. Unto this dust, we return. When he chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God.“
He has spent the last seven years in complete isolation, staring at our sun at close-range, with nothing to occupy his time but thoughts of humanity, eternity and himself—an existential dilemma. I don’t doubt that, given those circumstances, I would begin to invent my very own god, and perhaps even imagine myself to be a god. Pinbacker and Capa are not so different, each is left with his own contribution to some greater significance: Capa—completing the mission and saving humanity, and Pinbacker—sabotaging the mission, ending humanity, leaving him alone with the final truth of his god. On the surface, Pinbacker’s motivations seem cruel and pointless, but they are understandable when you take into account the fact that his isolation has left him completely alienated from the rest of humanity, affording him a unique perspective. Humanity, he knows, will not last forever; this mission will just buy us a little time.
And so, the film asks, what will we do with that time?
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Alex Garland
Stars: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans