When Danny Boyle first teamed up with novelist Alex Garland we got The Beach, a so-so film with more ideas than coherent execution, but their second film together 2002’s 28 Days Later came to redefine the British Horror genre, make comments on post-9/11 terror and most of all kick the zombie / infected genre into the twenty-first century. Naturally when they announced that the two of them would be tackling a science fiction film together, it could only herald greatness.
Boyle’s brief excursion between their second and third collaborations was for the delightful family film Millions, a film which alludes very heavily to themes of Christianity. Boyle famously stated that as a young man he was convinced that his life’s calling was to join the Church and become a priest, that was until he saw Apocalypse Now. A film about travelling somewhere but finding out something dark within yourself. Both faith, and that idea, come together in Sunshine.
Sunshine has a deceptively simple plot line. The Sun is dying, as such Earth is slowly freezing. A mission to reignite the sun with a nuclear payload has already failed once, so a second team aboard the Icarus II are on a last ditch mission to deliver a new one and kick start the sun. Very simple, people need to explode the sun to save Earth. But that’s not what Sunshine is about, that’s its set up.
Boyle’s film takes its time to set up its characters. We slowly meet the crew of the Icarus II, first Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) the ships scientist and then the rest. Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), Mace (Chris Evans) the engineer, Cassie (Rose Byrne) the pilot, Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) the biologist, Searle (Cliff Curtis) the ship’s doctor who is facing his own interest in the Sun and Trey (Benedict Wong) the navigator. The crew answer to the voice of Icarus the on board computer whose tones – voiced by Chipo Chung – offer less a Hal-9000 vibe than a mother nature or soothing quality.
Boyle has stated in interviews that his choice to do Sunshine was motivated, in part, by his love of “serious sci-fi” films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris. Films that deal with the idea of space being a psychological arena to work through complex ideas. Sunshine is as much a film about faith as it is about space. There are allusions to religion throughout the film, not least in Corazon’s oxygen garden. Her garden provides fresh air around the ship but it is also considered her Eden, where she is most at peace.
In conversation with film critic Mark Kermode, Boyle said that travelling into space would either make you a believer or an atheist with nothing in between. This idea is at the heart of Sunshine. The point of contension with many critics of the film is the introduction of the original Icarus ship, long since lost and abandoned, which the crew of the II enter to take their nuclear payload as a back-up. In doing so they discover some of the logs of Icarus I’s Captain, Pinbacker (Mark Strong).
Pinbacker as a name is an allusion to Pinback from Dark Star, John Carpenter’s science fiction adventure film written by and starring Dan O’Bannon who would later go on to write a script called Star Beast, a screenplay that became the legendary Alien. The slow introduction of Pinbacker builds him up as an enigmatic figure. By the end of the film, it’s clear that being so close to the Sun has radicalised Pinbacker from working class pilot and captain of the Icarus I to a fundamentalist that believes it his duty to God to stop the bomb from going off.
The point of contention with many viewers is that what was a slow building examination on duty vs life with the Sun as a backdrop becomes something closer to a slasher film. Abandoning the ideas of 2001 for something closer to Event Horizon. In reality, the film pits the final three people alive on the Icarus II as examinations of what space can do to a person.
Capa is burdened by his understanding of the science. As the Sun dies, life on Earth dies with it. The nuclear payload is the last hope humanity has to survive by reigniting the Sun. His scientific knowledge puts him in a position to only be able to see the facts for what they are. The lives of everyone on the Icarus II pales in comparison to those on Earth. The mission is the most important thing. Juxtapose that with his colleague and friend Cassie, who despite being the pilot of the ship is ruled mainly by emotion. Cassie is shown to be sensitive to others, and to her own needs and desires. Her desire to help mankind isn’t ruled by fact, but by emotion. Both of them, the atheist and logical Capa, and the emotional Cassie, are pitted against Pinbacker.
Pinbacker’s fundamentalism, that he has spoken with the almighty and that he must stop the Icarus II crew is a humanising of the folly of man. Nature is, and always has been, out of our control. It takes one pulse from the Sun and all life ends in fire. The illusion to the Greek myth of Icarus who flew too close to the Sun and suffered as a result is clearly alluded to. But so too is the bible. Corazon is murdered by Pinbacker in her oxygen garden. Her life is taken where life begins with oxygen and plant life. Pinbacker believes he is restoring the natural order on demands from a voice from above.
We see flashes of what could have happened to Pinbacker in crew members of the Icarus II. Searle is similarly obsessed with the Sun even though he is the one to take care of people’s psychological needs. Searle spends much of his time on the observation deck bathed in the Sun at the highest volume it is safe to be in. Pinbacker similarly is burned beyond recognition, having murdered his crew and bathed in the light of the Sun in the belief he has spoken with God for seven years.
The presentation of Pinbacker in the film, his extensive burns based on those of Niki Lauda, show the force of nature that the Sun is. But, whenever Pinbacker is presented on screen Boyle distorts the image, adds scratching and screaming sounds to the soundtrack to the point where it becomes hard to see him. What this does is two fold, one it puts the viewer into the mind of Pinbacker where rational thought can no longer exist and where the endless silence has rendered him unable to hear properly. Secondly, it adds ambiguity to Pinbacker. Is he a vision of something or truly there? Looking at him is difficult as it is to look directly at the Sun, Pinbacker has become an embodiment of the Sun’s power.
Sunshine for it’s trashy and horror-inflected ending has become controversial. Many see the final movement of the film as being from a different story entirely, not equipped to be presented within the story of a serious science fiction mission, while others take the more abstract ideas of a physical threat as Boyle once again playing with expectations. Just as he put Renton in the toilet, or the dead baby on ceiling in Trainspotting to show the effects of drug addiction and withdrawal, Pinbacker becomes a way of illustrating the fear people have of what might be beyond this life.
In the end Sunshine poses terrifying questions: What if there is a God? What if the Sun is God?