Glenn Bristol of the website FilmWonk contributes another guest column to 10YA with Sunshine, Danny Boyle’s finely aged sci-fi drama.
Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago, the Icarus project sent a mission to restart the sun, but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I, Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), and a crew of seven, left Earth frozen in a solar winter.
Our payload: a stellar bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island.
Our purpose: to create a star within a star.
Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb.
Welcome to the Icarus II.
Opening voice-over is hit-or-miss with me, as are on-the-nose ship metaphors. Naming your solar rescue mission Icarus seems problematic, especially for a second attempt. I suppose we could’ve revived Apollo (a literal sun-god) for this, but the first Apollo mission…erm…died in a fire, so I guess there’d be trouble either way. In any case, it seems branding wasn’t a major priority – we don’t actually see much of Earth in this “solar winter,” but the planet seems to have unified, at least to the point of mining and transporting all of Earth’s fissile material (including, presumably, all of the nuclear weapons), so assuming Dr. Capa (Cillian Murphy)’s second attempt to save the dying sun manages to succeed, Earth might be a bit more peaceful than before. Or at least return to conventional warfare.
I first saw Sunshine in theaters on a friend’s recommendation. She assured me it was “two thirds character-based indie sci-fi, one third aggressive slasher flick.” This is largely accurate on its face – in fact, the movie has a handful of plot beats in common with Event Horizon, the Doctor Who episode “42,” and even Aliens if I’m playing a bit loose with it. “The first group went missing so now you have to complete their mission and grapple with the [unknown] problem they failed to solve” is a solid adventure trope, and imbuing it with world-ending stakes and psychological torment definitely sets this film up for success – that, plus its powerhouse cast. Besides Murphy, the crew includes Rose Byrne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, and Benedict Wong. Most of them have gone on to bigger and better genre projects, and they really do have a chance to shine here. And of course there’s Mark Strong, who generally gets a more comprehensible voice than this, but has made a career of playing equally creepy villains. The key takeaway here is that I went into this film knowing that it would eventually turn horrific, and that tension may have compromised my objectivity when it came to evaluating the movie’s world-ending stakes. Nonetheless, Capa’s opening voice-over spells it out concisely enough – this is Earth’s last, best shot, and if it fails, the species is done – and this cast (Evans and Curtis in particular) does a stellar job of letting those stakes inform their every action and character beat, even as the slasher elements gradually appear.
The screenplay, written by Alex Garland (Never Let Me Go, Ex Machina), begins at just the right moment, right when Icarus II is about to enter the “dead zone” – an area in which the sun’s electromagnetic field is so powerful that they will be unable to send transmissions back to Earth. So they get one final round of messages home, and then it’s radio silence for two years. I don’t know if this dead zone is based in fact, but the movie does get one other detail right that I didn’t know when I first saw the film – flying into the sun from the Earth is really hard – actually harder than leaving the Solar System! That’s to say, if you point a rocket directly at the sun and fire it off, you’ll just keep missing it, because the rocket begins by orbiting the sun at the same relative velocity as the Earth (30km/sec). So you need to fly very, very fast in the opposite direction along the orbital plane (or do something much cooler and more difficult to slow yourself down) before you’ll be able to fly toward the sun in any meaningful way. MinutePhysics on YouTube tells the tale better, so I’d encourage you to check them out. But the key takeaway is that this rocket had to expend a massive quantity of fuel to make it to the sun, and we briefly see a photo of the crew which confirms that it nailed this (record-fast) velocity at some point. What’s my point in bringing this up? This movie is not a scientific documentary (its scientific advisor is quite explicit on this point, and is happy to hand-wave things like artificial gravity), but it at least seems interested in science, and that was something I very much appreciated while watching it. Like Moon and Interstellar after it, this movie gets enough details right for me to believe that it respects the audience’s intelligence, and doesn’t toss away science for mindless peril like so many others.
Back to the imminent comms blackout – Capa and Mace (Evans) have a bit of a brawl. I like this moment, not because I think a fistfight on a spaceship is particularly professional, but because this is over a legitimately unsolvable issue. Capa took a bit too long to send his message, and now Mace won’t be able to talk to his family for two more years (or perhaps ever again). It’s more than just an accident – it’s a wound, and it won’t heal. There will be more of these. These astronauts, collectively, are the most distant humans in history from the rest of humanity, and this moment exemplifies that loneliness. The ship’s pilot, Cassie (Byrne), is not having it, and promptly calls the entire crew in to deal with the “excess of manliness breaking out in the Comm center”. Before too long, Mace is baring his soul with the ship’s doctor and shrink, Searle (Curtis), then basking on the holodeck grinning into a simulation of crashing waves on a boardwalk. We’re just now starting to understand the full psychological effect of long-term close quarters space travel and isolation, and virtual reality has been proposed as a means of mitigating its effects. 2007 was the year of the first iPhone, and portable computing power is finally starting to reach the point where VR could make a serious comeback. And by allowing the astronauts to feel like they’re outside of a confined space, perhaps their minds will forget their cramped quarters and intractable quarrels for a while.
And then the trouble really starts. Harvey (Troy Garity), the ship’s comms officer and XO, informs the crew that they’ve received a transmission from Icarus I. Apparently the previous ship survived, and is floating in orbit of the sun like Russell’s teapot, cloaked in the dead zone, just waiting for a ship to get close enough to hear their distress call. Trey (Wong) says – pending some very complicated math – that they could adjust their course and intercept with Icarus I. Mace, the consummate rationalist, immediately shuts down the idea. This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Mace is, of course, correct – they have one bomb, and one chance, to save humanity. So literally nothing else matters – not the other ship, not its crew, and not any of them. Searle chimes in to agree, but with a dangerous caveat: it may be worth it to retrieve the second bomb. Everything about the bomb is theoretical, and even with an ingenious physicist like Capa aboard, they still don’t know, can’t know, if it will work. So they have to decide whether or not the potential benefit of a second bomb is worth the danger of trying to retrieve it. This is a movie. We know the answer they’re going to choose. But I must emphasize, this is the moment where I really believed this was a crew of professionals. Mace may be correct in his assessment of the mission’s objectives and stakes, but it’s not his call. Captain Kaneda (Sanada) says it’s not his call either. There won’t be a vote, like some of them clamor for. The most qualified person will decide on the best course of action. “Shit,” says Capa, realizing who that means. Putting Mace and Capa on opposite sides of this debate, right after they’ve just had an irrational brawl, was an inspired choice, particularly since there is no perfectly correct answer to this question – they just have to make a choice. And so they go.
After a minor miscalculation, the ship is in peril. Two of them have to go outside to repair the heat shield, and the butcher’s bill is heavy. I won’t dwell on this sequence for too long, but suffice to say, it is one of the most tense and thrilling sequences in the entire film, is the first of several appearances of John Murphy‘s outstanding Adagio in D Minor (which would go on to appear in Kick-Ass and innumerable other projects). As the crew deals with the fallout of this minor arithmetic hiccup, they do so in gigantic gold spacesuits on a massive, James Bond-sized setpiece, and the sun’s imminent rise hangs ominously just over the ship’s tiny horizon, with the fate of the ship (and thus, the entire species) at stake. It is awe-inspiring, as is the battle of wills between Cassie, Mace, and the ship’s computer over whether or not to let the captain die for the sake of the mission. These are some smart, tense thrills, and I felt the same way watching this as I did watching Ryan Stone re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in Gravity – that astronauts are the closest thing we have to superheroes in real life, strapped to a nuclear-powered chariot hurtling through the heavens. Ideally, with the utmost safety and professionalism. But it’s still glorious.
I’m starting to sound a bit like Searle here, who – in addition to semi-religiously hanging out in the ship’s forward observation room and subjecting himself to higher and higher brightness levels recreationally – seems to be starting an internal sun-worshiping cult of sorts. As Kaneda is facing his imminent demise on the prow of the ship’s heatshield, Searle demands to know what he sees. Curtis plays this character with remarkable stability, and this fleeting, creepy moment almost feels like him indulging his hobby. But it’s a moment that comes back to mind as we meet Captain Pinbacker (Strong) later on in the film. Searle is tapped with maintaining the entire crew’s mental health, and he seems to be casually creating his own god. The rest of the crew should probably be a bit more concerned about this. But they have bigger problems at the moment. Not only is the captain dead, but the entire botany bay is destroyed, sapping the ship’s oxygen. They now have no choice but to rendezvous with Icarus I.
Cassie and Capa have a moment in the payload room, which appears to be a massive cube. Cassie thinks they’re going to die. Capa describes how he thinks the bomb will go off, in semi-poetic terms. He’s not scared. She is. I’ll say here, Byrne does an admirable job with Cassie, even though she’s a fairly limited character (and naming your resident doomsayer Cassandra sounds like more of that on-the-nose naming that Garland is so fond of). But the friendship between Cassie and Capa is one of the film’s only reasonably fleshed-out relationships, and it’s probably for the best that they didn’t take it any further into space romance territory. Really not the movie for that.
I’m going to skip ahead a bit on the recap, because the scenes of exploring Icarus I and discovering the fate of its crew (minus Pinbacker) are genuinely tense and well-staged, and lead to another moment of tense pragmatism. The ship’s airlock mysteriously explodes, and they have no means of getting the four of them back to Icarus II. And this is the moment when Harvey, the comms officer, XO, and least mission-critical person on the ship, reveals himself to be a selfish coward, demanding the only spacesuit for himself. Mace has already volunteered Capa for that slot, because he knows the physicist is more important than any of them. Searle finally solves the situation by volunteering to stay behind and die. He doesn’t do this out of suicidal nobility – it’s just that someone has to stay behind and cycle the airlock from inside, and he knows Harvey (the next least important person) can’t be trusted to do the job. So Searle does his duty, waiting in the sun room to literally meet his maker (if we’re being poetic about our parent star), while his three colleagues are blasted out of the airlock: Capa in a spacesuit, the rest in open vacuum, wrapped in shipboard insulation. My only objection to this scene (apart from being the most direct ripoff of Event Horizon) was that it was a bit narratively tidy – the movie still needed Capa and Mace, so they got to live. But it’s not like an exploding airlock knows has a sense of justice or practicality, and the conventional hero (Mace) surviving rather than the briefly selfish jerk (who floats away and dies horribly) was pure dumb luck – one of the only times the movie indulges in such contrivance.
Mace gives a post-mortem. He concludes that the ship’s airlock could only have been destroyed by sabotage, and the only possible saboteur is Trey, who at last word, was on suicide watch, blaming himself for Kaneda’s death. And there’s more, chimes in Corazon (Yeoh), who was responsible for the now-extinct oxygen garden. If Trey dies, they’re down to four breathers, and they have enough oxygen to make it to the sun and complete their mission. And so…we get the next scene of hyperrationality. These scenes hammer away at my psyche every time I watch the film, and as I watch these scientists coldly calculate the costs and benefits of murdering their colleague, I can’t help but think this alienation of their humanity is one of the film’s most important themes. Save the world, the movie asks? Sure. But it’ll cost you all the best parts of yourself. Mace volunteers to do the deed himself, but insists on a unanimous decision. “Kill him,” says Capa. But Cassie refuses. “You’re saying you need my vote, and I’m saying you can’t have it.” Their own mini-Circle has failed to reach a consensus, and Mace treks off to murder Trey anyway. But he quickly finds that Trey has beaten him to it, with a scalpel from the infirmary. Mace takes a moment to blame Capa for Trey’s death, and literally smear blood onto his hands, and then they have another feckless brawl while the women look on in disgust. And this is where Mace officially got on my nerves. I still like the sum of this character, but he is just as much of an emotional creature as the rest of them, and the film’s insistence on his rationality strains when he continuously engages in petty bickering, especially over the corpse of a man he was about to murder himself. He may be more reliable than someone like Harvey, but he’s not much better in the end. But as much as the character manages to put me off by the end, Evans’ performance is outstanding, and I can see why he was tapped for Snowpiercer after playing this character. His hyperrationality and stoicism were inflated to villainous excess in that film. He may have eventually become the cheery and optimistic Steve Rogers, but between those two films, I’ll never forget what Evans is capable of.
And finally, we have a showdown with Pinbacker, who was responsible for the airlock sabotage and has made it onto Icarus II. It’s a well-done thriller sequence (resulting in two more cool deaths), but I can’t help but wonder at this point what kind of film this might have been without Melanoma Man (props to Daniel for this) as the final twist. Pinbacker represents the worst excesses of mankind’s failure, monologuing about our foolishness in the face of annihilation by God. My final verdict on Pinbacker is that he was good, but not essential. Humanity could be destroyed by an asteroid or a gamma ray burst in the blink of an eye, and the collapse of our sole lifegiving star is on the same level. The Great Filter is terrifying enough without carefully-vetted professional humans bringing irrationality and quasireligious nihilism to the party. Humanity may bring its own demons to bear on its own extinction, but it strikes me as unlikely that those demons will be quite so literal. But I may be trying to thread an impossible needle here. My main complaint about Europa Report was that watching competent professionals do their jobs well – even if that job is something that would utterly capture my imagination in real life – is pretty boring. Sunshine gets this balance right, whichever side it lands on.
Once the cinematic terror is sorted, it’s time for the surviving crew to fall into the sun, and that’s when things get a bit magical and weird. Earlier in the film, when Capa and Cassie were discussing the prospect of changing course, Capa explains, “Between the boosters and the gravity of the sun the velocity of the payload will get so great that space and time will become smeared together and everything will distort. Everything will be unquantifiable.” This is as close as we ever get to an explanation for the film’s quasi-magical ending, and you know what? It works. Humanity’s best scientist and smartest computer both can’t say what the subjective experience of falling into the sun strapped to a giant bomb approaching relativistic speeds will be like. Time dilation kicks in, and perhaps there’s room for a conscious being to experience its own annihilation in the elongated space within an instant. Either way, Murphy’s score is playing its heart out, Capa’s voiceover kicks back on, and the film is over. An ever-so-slight brightening of the sun over a snowy Sydney, Australia reveals that the crew succeeded, eight minutes after the crew becomes stardust. This isn’t an ending that belabors itself or grasps for meaning. This tale of salvation is big enough on its own, even after a decade and plenty more to compare it to.
FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10