Astronauts head out to restart the sun in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Cillian Murphy (Robert Capa), Chris Evans (James Mace), Rose Byrne (Cassie), Michelle Yeoh (Corazon), Cliff Curtis (Searle), Troy Garity (Harvey), Hiroyuki Sanada (Kaneda), Benedict Wong (Trey), Chipo Chung (Icarus), Mark Strong (Pinbacker)
Spoilers: Last act surprises are discussed here. Although they did put them in the trailer at the time as well
What would we do if the sun decided to pack it in? To be fair, probably not build a bomb the size of Manhattan out of all the world’s fissile material and then fly it up to the Sun in a huge spaceship to jump start the sun’s core. Because that idea is pretty much like trying to restart a volcano with a match. To be fair, Professor Brian Cox (for it was he) did come up with an actual concept that did work – something involving a Q-Ball in the sun, whatever the hell that is – that the film never mentions. But then who really cares about the science, we only care about the simple idea of restarting the sun’s engine with a massive nuke. That’s an idea I don’t need a staff pass at the Large Hardron Collider to understand.
Mankind’s final fate is in the hand of a team pulled from across the world’s space agencies, with Professor Robert Capa (played by Cillian Murphy as a figure inspired heavily by Brian Cox himself in looks and style) as the boffin whose job is to blow the bomb when the time comes. The mission, Icarus II, is under the command of Captain Taneka (Hiroyuki Sanada), with engineer Mace (Chris Evans), pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne), biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) whose job is to maintain the oxygen garden, psychiatrist Searle (Cliff Curtis), navigator Trey (Benedict Wong) and second-in-command and comms officer Harvey (Troy Garity). Entering the final days of the mission, near Mercury, the crew discover traces of the first missing mission that carried the first payload to restart the sun, Icarus I. Deciding two payloads are better than one, the crew divert to intercept – and of course from there everything slowly falls apart into increasing chaos, destruction and horror.
Boyle’s film was marketed as a sort of slasher-in-space – which to be fair it only really becomes in its final act, as the crew accidentally take on board captain of Icarus I, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), a man driven mad by proximity to the sun, deluded in the belief that it is God’s will that mankind perish with the sun. In fact for the bulk of its runtime – and its primary themes – are really about the psychological impact of prolonged isolation in space with only a small group of people for company (a heightened submarine claustrophobia), the dangers and damage that obsession can cause and the moral complexities that emerge when the fate of mankind is literally in the hands of eight people.
With an intelligent script by Alex Garland, Boyle’s film is smart, superior sci-fi which asks searching questions of how we might respond in the situations this crew are thrown into. How quickly would you make decisions about who is expendable and who is not when you are mankind’s last chance? How quickly would you be willing to sacrifice yourself? What moral qualms would you feel if the fate of the one was balanced against the many? And how are all these feelings heightened by the intense claustrophobia and isolation of prolonged space travel, interacting with the same few people day-in and day-out in a ship of which every inch you would be intimately familiar within the first few months of a mission lasting years?
It’s a wonder more people don’t go crazy in the film. Boyle’s film makes excellent use of the terrifyingly awesome, good-like power of the sun. Its rays are so intense at the range of the ship, that any exposure over about 2% of its full strength is lethal. But there is something about its mighty power, its all-consuming presence, that draws characters too it like moths to a flame. Psychiatrist Searle (impressively played by Cliff Curtis) already seems to be becoming slowly a slave to an obsession with our star, his skin peeling from too many hours in the ship’s solar observation lounge. Pinbacker (a curiously accented performance of intense insanity from Mark Strong) lost his mind in sun worship, his mind seemingly snapped by coming face-to-face with the powers of the heaven compared to the mini-presence of man.
But it’s that presence of mankind that drives the mission, and lies behind all decisions. Hard-ass engineer Mace (Chris Evans, very good) seems like a jerk, but he simply applies Spock’s maxim of the needs of the many to a logical extreme (correctly) objecting to every course of action that invites unknowns into the equation that endanger the mission. And Mace doesn’t hesitate at any time in the film when asked to balance his own safety against the success of the mission. Each crew member – with the exception of Harvey – places their own survival a distant second behind the completion of the mission, and the film is littered with moments of self-sacrifice and self-imperilment.
It’s this humanistic core to the film, of accepting the world is it and that mankind must be preserved within that, which leads to some of the film’s more weighted points around faith and religion. The film has little time for anything away from pure science, and an interest in higher powers and staring too closely at the bright light, is mixed in heavily with a dangerous fundamentalism that eventually leads to the film’s only spiritual figure Pinbacker becoming a psychopath determined to follow what he sees as God’s plan at the cost of all human life. It’s not a subtle picture of religion – and the film could have balanced it with at least one of these characters expressing some faith in some sort of religion on the ship or gently questioning how humbling being this close to the face of God might feel. The film has no time for that.
But then I suppose this is really a psychologically intense mission film, a sort of big-themes action sci-fi that is the sort of ideas based film you wish was made more often. Boyle’s direction is pinsharp as always, and the moments of dreamy awe and shattering power of the sun (as bodies are vapourised, parts of the ship crumble) or the freezing vastness of space (as one character discovers to their cost) provide a series of haunting scenes. Shooting Pinbacker with a juddering out-of-focus intensity – intended to ape the feeling of starring directly at the sun – is effective in making the character chillingly unknowable. This moments work very well, as does the superb cast which has not a weak link among them (Cillian Murphy in particular anchors the entire thing extremely well). Sunshine is a thought-provoking and blistering science-fiction film that manages to balance big themes and ideas with horror house jumps and haunting moments of tension.