10+ Years Later: SUNSHINE Is Still Waiting For The Light
With Danny Boyle's forthcoming revisit of the world of Edinburgh junkies, lowlifes and dropouts twenty years on, it would seem fitting that we have a look at Trainspotting (1996) and where it stands in the culture 20 years on.
But we are not going to do that. Too easy, perhaps? Or too obvious.
No fault to Boyle's stylish mega-hit, but it has had its share of ink and digital space over the years, and rightfully so. The success of Trainspotting, along with his Oscar winning melodrama, Slumdog Millionaire (not to mention a complete re-invention/resurrection of the entire zombie subgenre with 28 Days Later...) overshadowed his exceptionally smart, and gorgeously rendered space epic, Sunshine. A thinking persons science fiction adventure, the film hit its decade mark this year, and yet, somehow seems to be marginalized in the cinematic conversation. For a complete work of such artistry in design, ideas, and genre-execution, there have to be some significant reasons for its footnote status on the directors C.V. and in the genre as a whole, right?
Sunshine was released in the spring of 2007 if you lived pretty much anywhere in the world except for the USA and Canada, where it was marketed and released as a summer blockbuster (which is somewhat is and somewhat is not). 2007 would prove out to be one of the great years of cinema in recent memory (perhaps the best we have seen since the pre-millennial mind-fuck year of 1999). There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, Zodiac, 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days, Inland Empire, Paprika, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, and other dark films dominated the cinema conversation as, inexplicably, a host of 'threequels' occupied the box office. Sunshine was an original concept (even by space travel standards - cosmonauts usually fly to other planets, not the Sun) with a blockbuster pitch along the lines of Armageddon or The Core.
[*Spoilers* for Sunshine from here on.]
Many were quick to write the film off as a 21st century pastiche of science fictions greatest hits. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solyaris, Silent Running, and Alien, do factor into the DNA of the film. But it was the pulpier 'Freddy Krueger slasher' third act that seemed to damn the film in most critical circles. The latter remains a stumbling point for many to this day. When Quentin Tarantino introduced the movie during a curation/hosting stint on the UK's SKY network, he too fell into this trap, completely, although he indicated that the first two acts save the film. It's hard to think that such a dedicated cineaste either failed to grasp (or was unwilling to engage) with how the themes of Sunshine, the juxtaposition of human fragility and spiritual hubris, culminate in that very third act.
Admittedly, it is all too easy to get caught up in the pragmatic and moral dilemmas the crew of Icarus II faces as an ever increasing number of setbacks mount to prevent their mission to 'kick-start' the sun. In the first two acts of Sunshine, Boyle convincingly offers a masterclass in the school of "space travel is fucking hard!"
All the while an exceptional international cast (arguably the best ever for the genre templated established by Star Trek) consisting of Japan's Hiroyuki Sanada, Ireland's Cillian Murphy, Malaysia's Michelle Yeoh, a pre Captain America Chris Evans, England's Benedict Wong, Australia's Rose Byrne and New Zealand's Cliff Curtis bring to the table a diverse treasure of grounded humanity. Unlike most of these types of films, you really do want to spend time with these characters as people (moreso than as fodder). Also noteworthy is that Zimbabwe's Chipo Chung is the dulcet but firm voice of the computer.
It is easy to get lost in the seemless practical design and inspired special effects on display. The film is a feat of done-in-camera, subtly augmented, reality that would not be topped until recently with George Miller's gonzo stunt-spectacular Mad Max: Fury Road. Notably, both of these films are a full-on visual experiences that can overwhelm, or at least unintentionally obfuscate, a bubbling well of thematic gifts.
Engaging with its themes becomes critical to understanding the scope and the conclusion of Sunshine. Like many of the great science fiction ideas, it deals with how humanity will grapple with technology and spirituality in the future.
After a sly bit of Fox-Searchlight Logo manipulation that subtly toys with what we are actually seeing, Cillian Murphy's young physicist, Robert Capa, informs us that it is the year 2057. A curious anomaly in the Sun has caused its power to diminish, causing a modern ice age on Earth. In response to possible extinction, the world has put together a last hope (or rather a 'second last hope', more on that shortly) in the form of a nuclear payload designed to target and 'blow-up' the anomaly. Will science and humanity be enough to get the species out of this solar pickle? Capa sends a humble video email to his sister on Earth telling her to look to the Sun: If it blinks a bit brighter, then the mission would have been a success.
Capa and the crew of the ominously christened Icarus II are flying directly into the face of the sun in a long slender ship attached to a bomb the size of Manhattan Island. All of this is protected by a vast array of mirrors, a solar umbrella. The sun might be too week to service the Earth, but it is still a vast almost uncomprehendable ball of energy, which the cinematography here does an excellent job in conveying. Then there is the mysterious failure of Icarus I, which disappeared seven years prior, lost with no communication back to Earth.
Here is where I will divert from the (intensely executed) plot of everything that can and will go wrong during space travel, and focus on the central ideas in the film.
In many ancient human cultures, the Sun was worshipped as a god; it being the giver of life and energy to all of Earth's inhabitants. To look directly into the face of the god, as it were, would be enough to drive a man (or woman) to insanity. An early shot in Sunshine sees the ships bright psychologist, Serle (Cliff Curtis), staring directly into the sun; albeit filtered via a viewing window that dial things down to about 3% of intensity. Even this small dose is enough to give him a visceral, one might say divine, experience. At the dinner table (Alien fans take note how Boyle effortlessly co-opts and subverts a certain 'get to know the characters' aesthetic) with the rest of his scientific colleagues, he tries to explain the feeling -- the difference between being isolated in darkness, vs. enveloped in light. He gives up his fumbling rendition by simply saying, "I recommend it."
The best and brightest of us (ahem, scientists) who dare to take the fate of humanity onto their fallible shoulders are in effect aiming to create a 'second big bang.' One way to look at this might be to author their own creation-mythology through technology. Indeed, by the end of the film, Capa is allegorically a scientific Jesus. A son of God (perhaps) who merges with God (here, the Sun) in a sacrifice of his physical body to save humanity.
Along the way, he faces conflict with his crew. There is an ongoing physical and verbal scuffle with the ships ultra-focused engineer Mace (Chris Evans, who has rarely been better than he is here, with the exception of the equally allegorical Snowpiercer). Capa faces some tough choices when the Icaras I is discovered by way of its far off distress signal. Should they ignore this second payload, and possible answers, or focus on the mission at hand? Because the ship is not a democracy, rather a group of specialists, who defer decision making process to those with expertise. The post-politics angle, which of course collapses when the stresses mount, is an interesting extra layer, but I digress. Faced with this decision and division in the crew, Cillian Murpy's body language, and Boyle's inventive camera placements, go a long way to express a humble, outsider aspect of his character.
Later, upon a serious of disasters and hardships en route to the stranded Icarus I, Capa and the few remaining souls still alive on board -- the rest have sacrificed themselves for the mission or for their own mistakes -- discover that the first ship was sabotaged. The saboteur has survived in solitude (a celestial monk) to become the psychotic Captain Pinbacker. Realized via a nearly unrecognizable Mark Strong, looking like burn victim on 'roids, and whose very presence causes unsettling optical distortions and lens flairs in the film; a clever visual way of projecting fear and hate outward at us in the form of messing with our vision.
The former captain of Icarus I has been exposing himself to the Sun in escalating ways for seven long years. (I wonder if Serle's tentative foray into sun-exposure would eventually lead him to this place? We will never know, but the implication is certainly there.) Pinbacker is convinced that God (the Sun) is beyond human meddling, and science should take a back seat to apocalyptic zealotry. If God wills we die, then we die. He sabotaged his own ship on this assumption, presumably murdering his crew (although collective suicide is an equal possibility), and is hell bent on stopping Icarus II from completing their mission.
To quote Pinbacker: "At the end of time, a moment will come when just one man remains. Then the moment will pass. Man will be gone. There will be nothing to show that we were ever here... but stardust." He has seen the face of God up close, and has been driven crazy by it. He is our failure to transcend superstition and the unknown. And he is holding humanity back (at the climax of the picture, quite literally so) with his own madness and fear. In that special human way, his fear of the unknowable has warped itself into certitude of belief, one he is willing to kill for.
Contrast this with Capa, who, earlier is forced to accept that that Icarus II, due to several human error and supply limitations, is at best now a one way trip. There is no going home. He confesses to Cassie that he is not afraid, as he will get to be the cause, and bear witness to, the beginning of a second age of man. What is not said is that human science is the vessel, and any form of divinity can be in service of that. More specifically, that we can be one with nature without sacrificing our sense of awe about it. Or rather live our life and live it well.
As Pinbacker starts murdering the remaining crew of the Icarus II and generally fucking up any chance of progress, Capa solemnly side-steps around him, around space-time, and looks God (as it were) right in the face. On his own terms, and up close, he transcends our collective weakness in his willing sacrifice. And Boyle makes this one whopper of a visual image, elevated further with John Murphy and Underworld's whopper of a soundtrack.
While nearly every character in Sunshine dies in increasingly horrible ways (some might say this is the syntax of the genre, but Michelle Yeoh's biologist, Cora, clutching a seedling in the wake of a fire is particularly heart wrenching). A close read on how some die on their own terms (in lightness) or others not (darkness), and how choices, belief and action are presented is at the heart of Alex Garland's screenplay. I would say the film, ultimately, has a happy ending in the face of extreme adversity: the best of humanity works together as best they can to get closer to the ideal of our better nature. The pursuit of science is not a cold, calculating set of processes for progress, but rather a deep, passionate embrace of the awe at the centre of our existence. One that we should be a part of, not in fear of.
Now, combine all the heady intelligence of the picture with some innovative camera work. Indeed Boyle would go on to use the extreme close-up micro cameras used in the space suits here, to good claustrophobic effect in 127 Hours. And yet, the pioneered techniques stand on their own here in all their sweaty, macro, glory. And from a cinematic perspective, consider the number of ways Boyle (and his special effects supervisor, Tom Wood) find to visualize the power and the glory of the sun and contrast it to the vast, dark emptiness of space, the greenery of the Oxygen Garden, or the utilitarian metal shelves and computer monitors that comprise the interior of the ship. The film effectively reserves all the warm oranges and yellows for the power of the sun. And is scorching power, best experienced on as big a screen as possible.
A favourite moment in the film, for me, is when Mace is chastised by for his fisticuffs with Capa and told to spend time in the 'Earth Room,' Icarus's equivalent of the Holodeck. Here he is calmed by the joy and energy of people stepping a little too close to waves crashing on a bridge. They have only a fragile umbrella for protection. It is a happier fear-free, microcosm of Sunshine: man against the raw power of nature with an unspoken realization that humanity is also one with nature.
Or, in more blithely flippant terms, Monty Python taught us by singing: "The sun, and you and me, and all the stars that we can see, are moving at a million miles a day, In the outer spiral arm, at 40,000 miles an hour, of a galaxy we call the Milky Way." Staggering stuff, and so is Sunshine. I reckon that the film holds its own with the great entries in science fiction cinema. Yes the ones people accuse it of pilfering from, at the same time missing what the film is actually on about. There is nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants.
And here we are in 2017, still mostly ignoring Sunshine. In part due to the wide international success of Danny Boyle's other pictures, in part due to the faith (pun intended) Alex Garland put into his adult-oriented screenplay. My hope that the culture at large will, some day, perhaps, embrace it. Garland would, of course, go on to tackle the subject of artificial Intelligence and the Turning test and man's (and by man, I do mean the male of the species in this case) hubris to create and enslave, in the equally whip-smart and well designed Ex Machina. All's well that ends well.
Postscript: It should be noted that there is a kind of overlooked early aughts trilogy of hard-science fiction cinema which includes Sunshine, as well as Steven Soderbergh's remake, Solaris, and Michael Winterbottom's quiet riff on Phillip K. Dick and empathy, Code 46. The latter two are for another day.