In an average apocalyptic science fiction movie, the end of the world figures merely as a potential catastrophe to be averted, galvanizing intrepid heroes to rise to the challenge, facing nearly impossible odds, and ultimately saving the day just in the nick of time.
Danny Boyle’s Sunshine — following last year’s Children of Men, a similarly downbeat, stylish, middlebrow sci‑fi film from a non-Hollywood director — is haunted by the shadow of the mortality not of each human being but of mankind as a whole. Here, the extinction of man looms not so much as a threat to be averted as an inevitable reality, possibly to be resisted, but ultimately to be accepted and lived with.
It may or may not happen tomorrow: An inexplicably barren world could at last produce a miracle child, and a desperate mission to jump-start a dying sun may or may not be successful. Yet an existential bleakness leaps beyond these vagaries to the final inevitability. In the end, the sun is as mortal as our race and our world. In that sense, there is no final “saving” of humanity, any more than a doctor or fireman definitively “saves” the life of one who will inexorably someday be a corpse. The sun will die, our world will die, our race will die, and everything that matters so intensely to us now will in a sense come to naught.
“At the end of time,” a character muses in a critical scene, “a moment will come when just one man remains. Then the moment will pass… the man will be gone. There will be nothing to show that we were ever here, but stardust… Last man alone with God. Am I that man?”
Writer Alex Garland, who wrote Sunshine both as a screenplay and a forthcoming novel (and who collaborated with Boyle on his last apocalyptic genre film, zombie horror flick 28 Days Later), has said that the film’s premise was inspired by what he called “an article projecting the future of mankind from a physics-based, atheist perspective.” (Ironically, the idea of the heat death of the universe has long been regarded by Christian apologetics as a potential indication of the existence of a Creator. If the universe is perpetually degrading toward a final state of maximum entropy, such a one-way, finite process must have a beginning as well as an end, which seems to suggest that the universe has not always existed.)
Director Boyle has described Garland as “quite an aggressive atheist” (and Batman Begins actor Cillian Murphy, who plays the protagonist, has similarly said that he transitioned from agnostic to atheist while researching the role with scientists who “confirmed what I’d always suspected”).
Yet Boyle, an agnostic, also acknowledged a tendency, rooted in his religious upbringing, to reach for religious and even “broadly creationist” imagery in approaching matters of ultimate import. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sunshine in several respects overtly recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which agnostic director Stanley Kubrick’s openness to cosmic mystery may have at least partly subverted the atheistic and anti-religious worldview of writer Arthur C. Clarke (who also wrote that story both as a screenplay and a novel).
Where 2001: A Space Odyssey was concerned with mankind’s origins and ascent, Sunshine looks to mankind’s ultimate fate. Kubrick’s film ascribed the human race’s cognitive and creative development to an outside force, the monolith-building aliens (a conceit that naturally pushes back the question of outside help to the aliens’ own development). Sunshine contemplates the sun, that constant heavenly presence on which all earthly life depends, and the cosmological face of divinity in so many myths and cultures.
The year is 2057. The sun is dying. Earth is succumbing to eternal winter. Mankind’s only hope is to mount a manned mission to the sun to deliver a payload the size of Manhattan and detonate it, theoretically reviving our nearest star. (Manchester physicist Dr. Brian Cox [not to be confused with the actor], who worked as scientific adviser on the film, has proposed a scientific rationale for all this involving a construct of theoretical physics called a “Q‑ball,” an exotic form of matter that could hypothetically become trapped in a star and eat away at it like a cancer. To restart the sun, a “solar bomb” utilizing dark matter and uranium could destroy the Q‑ball. None of this, though, is explained in the film.)
Sunshine opens with one such mission having already failed, and the second well underway. For over a year, the fatefully named Icarus II has been traveling from earth’s orbit toward the center of the solar system: “eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb” in the words of physicist Capa (Murphy). The solar bomb is an enormous disc sheltered from the unforgiving fury of the sun by an array of articulated reflective gold thermal shield panels.
In the shadow of the bomb is the almost vestigial ship, a utilitarian construct of bunker-like spaces with only two concessions to aesthetics: an immersive virtual-reality “Earth room” with 360-degree recordings of comforting terrestrial surroundings, and the all-important “oxygen garden,” a leafy hothouse ecosystem that provides fresh veggies as well as O2.
The story takes place entirely en route to the sun, with no cutaways or flashbacks to earth to provide either relief or perspective on the stakes of the mission. Training, preparation, and farewells to loved ones are all eschewed (except for a broadcast final message from one crew member just before rising solar winds cut off Icarus II’s ability to communicate with earth).
The crew members represent a range of specialties and nationalities: Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada, Twilight Samurai), navigator Trey (Benedict Wong, Dirty Pretty Things) and biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger), who tends the oxygen garden, are Asian; pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne, Troy), medical officer Searle (Cliff Curtis, Training Day), engineer Mace (Chris Evans, Fantastic Four, Rise of the Silver Surfer) and comm officer Harvey (Troy Garity, Barbershop) are variously American or European. (Perhaps surprisingly, there are no darker-hued crew members, whether black, Indian or Middle-Eastern.) A ninth cast member is the Icarus computer itself, which speaks in dulcet tones (courtesy of Zimbabwe actress Chipo Chung) and addresses the crew members informally by their first names or nicknames.
An intelligent script and solid performances from the able cast create a crew a characters who talk and generally act like grown-ups rather than action heroes. While there is certainly action and suspense as the crew struggle to manage mishaps, potentially disastrous errors, and ragged emotional states, Sunshine generally plays less as an action film than a thoughtful procedural, not unlike Apollo 13, but with more philosophical overtones — at least for the first hour or so. Best of all, bravura cinematography makes Sunshine one of the most visually exciting films in a long time.
Then, in the final act, the filmmakers unexpectedly introduce a new element that essentially transmogrifies the film into spacefaring horror not unlike Ridley Scott’s Alien, or the likes of Pitch Black or Event Horizon. A character driven to madness claims to have “talked with God,” who has decreed the extinction of humanity: “It is not our place to challenge God,” he declares.
The character uttering these lines remains an opaque cipher — more a plot device than a character, like Michael Myers (or “the Shape”) in Halloween. We have no window into this character’s point of view, or the ultimate meaning of his God-talk. It seems empty, not just within the narrative but as an element in the story. Is this meant as a critique of religious experience and thought per se? If so, it shows the same contemptuous, impatient incomprehension as Christopher Hitchens’s sneer that theology is “a non-subject” that one need not actually understand in order to attack.
Dramatically, the last-hour descent into slasher territory is not only alienating and odd, but anti-climactic as well. Yes, the fate of the earth is still at stake, but the threat to the mission is overshadowed by ordinary scary-movie shocks and suspense.
It’s hard to see this crucial plot twist as anything other than a bizarre miscalculation that undermines the film’s final stab at transcendence. The attempt to replicate 2001’s climactic sense of revelation is only partly effective, in part due to the wrong-headed act preceding it, but also perhaps due to the limitations of the sun itself, in our demythologized world, as an icon of transcendence.
2001’s monoliths worked as loci of mystery and meaning in part because we had no insight into what they were or how they worked. Perhaps in a film with a sufficiently poetic, mythical, mystical approach, the sun might become a herald of similar wonder and awe, but if Sunshine had any such aspirations, it fumbled them in the last act. For an hour or so it threatens to be one of the best movies of the year, but in the end, despite sci‑fi razzle-dazzle and some undeniably powerful images, Sunshine ultimately settles for puzzling rather than mysterious.
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Interesting review. Sunshine starts out as high minded as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, with the introduction of a “Miguel Alvarez” type character, becomes the same banal nonsense pioneered in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.