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‘Sunshine’ a parable on science vs. religion masquerading as an unlikely thriller

‘Sunshine’ a parable on science vs. religion masquerading as an unlikely thriller


The general consensus regarding Danny Boyle’s 2007 flick Sunshine is as follows; thoughtful and atmospheric set up, promising narrative with originality and good characterization and mood, then dumped on its ass by an off-tangent mood swing of a climax, resorting to slasher horror suspense instead of its distinct brainy sensibilities. Considering the fact that Boyle is one of the most celebrated current Directors on the circuit, this apparent misstep wasn’t just galling to many – it was an unintelligible creative choice. In the blink of an eye, one with cataracts belonging to a brain suffering a severe migraine, the film opted from 2001 to Event Horizon. Considering how many questions Alex Garland’s script poses, there’s no harm in asking another; what if it didn’t mess it up at all? What if it just went all metaphysical and transcended from philosophical musings to mind bending presentation of quasi-reality? What if the problem, after all was said and done, was that we simply missed it?

A line of thinking already touched upon in a previous article, this writer first became aware that there was ‘something’ going on within Sunshine a week after first viewing. The impression left by its personal debut was similar to that felt by casual filmgoers and sci-fi aficionados alike, that it had ruined its potential by being unable to come up with a way in which to wrap up a story building up to something more worthy than a bad man with a scalpel hunting down the crew in a race against time. However, having dismissed the flick with a 7/10 rating, there was a strange itch at the back of the head suggesting it worth watching again. Why not, this scribbling vagabond felt, what’s the harm? At the very least, the cinematography, set design and sublime soundtrack from John Murphy and Underworld made it an aesthetically pleasing experience. The second runaround consisted of spotting puzzle pieces which had previously been invisible to an undiscerning eye. The third that followed soon after helped elevate the film’s status to badly underrated classic and an unsung gem, just as equally misunderstood as cult classics like The Fountain and Kill List. Before Sunshine was released, Garland described his screenplay as a love letter to science fiction. Real sci-fi fans, of course, were in a better position to understand exactly what was going on in the film’s chaotic third act.

Sunshine (Michelle Yeoh & Hiroyuki Sanada)

There are certain hints, noticeable glitches in the presentation, which prove to be gateway realizations to discovering that the movie is pressing hard at an existential mind game; the first is the effect of the eponymous sun, a dying star representing the destiny and probable death of a small and tight international crew of unlikely depth. In the first scene, Cliff Curtis’ counselor Searle is indulging in some unhinged sunbathing, exposing himself to medically unsafe proportions of the sun’s heat. He immediately recommends this experience to his crewmates, incidentally the very men and women that he has been trained to keep in a state of mental wellbeing. This isn’t just a trip for him; he describes it as an enriching experience that hints towards religious rapture.

Naturally, the uninitiated dismiss his recommendation as mad, and don’t notice as he slowly becomes less and less connected to his surroundings as he continuously subjects himself to the process (vitally, he describes the sunbathing as being surrounded by light), to such a degree that his skin peels. This is treated subtly and mostly hidden in the background of the action, but is none the less notable. This obsessive attitude proves contagious, as the Icarus II’s most sound and reliable presence, Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), develops an unholy fascination with the fate of his predecessor, Mark Strong’s latterly pivotal Pinbacker. While these two facts may not be connected, their respective deaths most certainly are; both go the same way, and in similar circumstances. They sacrifice their lives for the mission, but don’t exactly go out kicking and screaming as they face execution by sunshine. Searle even chooses this as a form of suicide, and seems happy at the opportunity to leave his mortal coil and join with the star.

Sunshine (Hiroyuki Sanada)

These factors, while fascinating character arcs in their own right, form part of a greater tapestry in the greater scheme of things, and the next big hint is represented by the character who to many symbolizes where the film failed; Pinbacker. Already seemingly unhinged, the captain of the original failed Icarus mission turns up after he supposedly died with his crew when they bafflingly chose the Searle school of hara-kiri instead of doing their jobs. The very nature of this last minute villain, who appears on the ship and tries to sabotage the mission by killing crewmembers and destroying tech, seems to betray the realistically minded mindset of the film unless you look at it as being deliberately unreal.

For instance, Pinbacker is able to infiltrate the Icarus II without detection, by means unknown, and evades detection or identification by the ship’s computer seemingly at his own behest. He is possessed of superhuman strength despite suffering severe and horrific third degree burns, and is capable of acts outside the bounds of possibility. When he is seen, he isn’t truly seen, instead is hidden behind motion blur and a perspective that refuses to focus, as if he doesn’t exist completely within our reality. When he does show up, his entrance is symbolically via the observation lounge’s searing view of our star, and his words are more reminiscent of a prophet than a crazed serial killer. Despite there never previously being anything to suggest that a man chosen to lead a crucial space mission was a religious zealot, his attitude is now that of a vengeful preacher or, dare it be said, an archangel.

Sunshine (Cillian Murphy)

Think back to an earlier scene, in which at the behest of Kaneda, the film’s principal protagonist Capa (ostensibly a case of Cillian Murphy playing Professor Brian Cox) uses simulators to run an accurate assessment of how payload delivery will pan out. Naturally, the program crashes in its final stages. “It’s the problem right there” 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”. Yes, this does serve as a tool to crank up more tension, since by this point the greatest peril facing the crew is failure. There aren’t any aliens or anything to overcome, they simply have to get somewhere and drop a bomb. But this line of scientific theorizing could also be read as a delicious piece of foreshadowing, in effect pre-warning the audience that things are going to get crazy at the end. Lo and behold, they do, with Pinbacker running amok and the reality of the ship becoming warped into a nightmarish surreal daze by its proximity to the sun.

The final piece of the jigsaw is the meaty subject of religion. You can’t get away from the fact that there is a heavy dose of faith and creed with the film, and it exists even more prominently in its subtext. Danny Boyle even went so far as to comment on the atheism debate in the build up to the film’s release. Now, consider what the sun truly is, not just in science but what it is to us; it is the giver of life, its death will take that away. It is light, heat and energy, a ball of insane science greater in scale of importance than we can truly appreciate. There is a reason why primitive tribes, and even more advanced cultures, worshipped the sun as God rather than putting their faith into a humanized deity. In scientific terms, from that most literal and grounded point of view, a star is the closest thing in the known universe to constitute a God-figure. Over the course of the many years he has spent in isolation and limbo, Pinbacker has apparently become an acolyte of that God, and picked up some truly remarkable talents and abilities along the way.

Sunshine (Mark Strong & Cillian Murphy)

So now we venture in the unscientific realms of ‘what-if?
What if Pinbacker is not just an unjustifiably dangerous and invincible antagonist thrown into the mix in search of cheap thrills, but in fact a manifestation of man’s dangerous affinity with faith when faced by the rationality of science? What if he, in effect, is Starman, a human evolutionary mutation transformed by his subjugation to close proximity solar rays, an effect most unquantifiable and unknowable. Furthermore, or perhaps alternatively, what if his presence is intended as a representation of religious zeal’s potentially fatal impact on our attempts to evolve, expand and even survive as a species? The final showdown is essentially a messenger of God against an astrophysicist, the location is a vessel built by technology being corrupted by its presence within the unknown, and the purpose is to decide the fate of a mission to reignite the sun, representing God, essentially touching Him and disobeying His will. What if Searle’s experiences with the sun earlier were shared by Pinbacker and his crew, and were what led to their suicide? What if what he and Kaneda saw in their final, metaphysical moments were something greater than simply a huge sphere of fire, something more profound? In short, did they see God?

Your answer to these questions basically decides how you choose to view and thus rate the film, and if the response to each is a short and blunt no then there’s nothing much to take from the plot other than its early strengths and ultimate disappointments. It also ignores a substantial amount of build up and set ups, however, to the point of ignoring the elephant’s presence in the room. At the very least, it would take a worryingly literally minded person to deny the significance of the fact that the film reaches its final, glorious moments amidst a physical manifestation of the science vs. religion debate, an issue which has a deeply ambiguous resolution. On the surface it seems as if science wins out, since Capa activates the interstellar bomb and completes the mission, even getting to meet the sun (God?) as his final act. It lives up to his prediction, that it will be beautiful. The sun is reignited, and the earth is saved. But perhaps that was the intention all along, and perhaps the loser wasn’t faith but the irrationality of stubborn conservatism of one’s creed. A preacher’s words aren’t the words of the deity he serves, after all. God didn’t write the bible. Such acceptance of the wider facts, those almost impossible to marry together, is essential in serving knowledge and thought. A concept that the greatest science-fiction is based on, by the way. In a wonderful display of free will, whether Sunshine lives up to this billing is entirely up to you.

This has been a Strange Interpretation.

Scott Patterson