“Do I have to spell it out for you? We have a payload to deliver to the heart of our nearest star. We are delivering that payload ’cause that star is dying and if it dies, we die, everything dies. So that is our mission, there is nothing, literally nothing more important than completing our mission.”
Sunshine‘s title is deceptively excellent. Taken literally, it simply describes the premise of the film–the sun is dying and these eight astronauts will attempt to save it. As an upbeat descriptor, it’s a bit of a cheeky in-joke about the movie’s emotional darkness. But it also cuts to the heart of the story. Ultimately Sunshine is a Peter Pan tale: as long as the crew keeps their happy thoughts, they’ll continue flying. The film imagines a mission with the highest possible stakes, and then asks if it’s possible for hope to survive in an atmosphere of immense pressure and apocalyptic dread. Can human beings hold it together knowing that they’re one mistake away from the end of everything? The title is so good that this is one of the few psychological sci-fi horror movies that I don’t think would be improved by calling it Space Madness instead.
Sunshine is often maligned for featuring a late-film shift from sci-fi to slasher movie, and it’s true that the film makes some unexpected choices in the last fifteen minutes or so. But I think this criticism is a little off-base. From the beginning, this was always a horror movie about a group of characters in a confined space getting killed off one by one; it just switches toward the end between two different but thematically aligned antagonists.
The first and most horrifying killer is simply Nature itself. Human beings are terrifyingly frail creatures. Too hot or too cold and we die. Too much or too little atmospheric pressure and we die. Too high or too low an oxygen level in our air and we die. Yet time and again we seal ourselves in a little box and venture forth into space, where an inch separates our fragile bodies from the searing heat of the sun’s light or the deathly chill of the empty blackness between the stars. The realization of just how quickly and easily things can go very, very badly for the people on this ship is what drives much of the story’s unnerving tension.
As the film opens, the Icarus 2 is just reaching an important milestone in their mission to detonate a bomb inside the sun: they’re about to lose communications with the people back home. They are now truly on their own, and with no guidance when it comes to the first major decision of their mission: having received a distress signal from the missing Icarus 1 ship, do they divert from their path to check it out? The screenplay is cleverly constructed so that everything proceeds from this moment of choice–a decision that falls to physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy). One of the joys of the film is that it works very well simply as science fiction; the characters are all scientists, and much of the movie involves watching intelligent people work through problems logically and with a ruthless awareness of the scientific and philosophical realities. “What are you asking?” says Capa later on. “That we weigh the life of one against the future of mankind? Kill him.” The extremity of the situation creates a series of dilemmas with infinity on one side of the scale, and as Capa learns when he tries to simulate the dropping of the bomb into the sun’s immense gravity well at relativistic velocity, infinity distorts the answer to any question beyond our ability to predict. Capa rightfully likens his choice of whether or not to visit the Icarus 1 to guessing the outcome of a coin flip… but he makes his guess based on the fear that the Icarus 2’s payload may not work. “Two last hopes are better than one.” It’s logical, it makes sense, we would probably make the same decision in his shoes, but nonetheless, Capa has lost his happy thoughts. Now he must fall–perhaps all the way to the surface of the sun, as in his recurring nightmares.
Events proceed with their own nightmarish inexorableness. A crewman makes a simple mistake that costs lives and radically decreases the chances of mission success. Command shifts from one captain to the next. Tensions rise. Situations require the devastating calculus of who is and isn’t vital to the mission, whose life is expendable. “You’re a communications officer on a ship with no means of communicating!” shouts one of them at one point. Throughout, Mace (Chris Evans) blames Capa for their situation. All of them try to hold it together, but the odds are against them. It’s probably a bad sign that the ship’s psychologist, Searle (Cliff Curtis) seems the least sane of any of them at the start of the film–he’s taken to spending hours in the Observation Room, staring at the sun at increasingly dangerous filtration levels. At 2% of its total power, the solar glare is a burning copper wave; at 4%, permanent eye damage sets in. Searle envelops himself in light at 3.1%, and later recounts the experience in almost spiritual terms.
Everyone has their own way of staving off the psychological effects of long-term stress. The ship’s biologist, Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) tends to her Oxygen Garden, a warm, wet green space that produces the Icarus 2’s renewable air supply. Others spend time in the Earth Room, a cubic space surrounded by screens that immerse the user in footage from back home–a pleasant jungle, ocean waves. These things might be necessary on any long space voyage. But it also seems as though the sun itself grows larger in their thoughts the closer they get. Cassie (Rose Byrne) admits to sharing Capa’s dream. “Only dream I ever have… is it the surface of the sun? Every time I shut my eyes… it’s always the same.” The sun’s immense influence extends itself to the visuals of the film, as well; from its gold spacesuits to the Icarus 2’s solar shield to the constant red, orange, gold light washing over the ship, Sunshine successfully finds a different look from any other film in space. Like the title, the sun is ironic, an omen of dread and death that also represents everything Earth needs to survive.
In contrast, the Icarus 1 is cold, dark, and dead. The dusty derelict is a chilling portent of where despair truly leads–rather than complete their mission, the crew of the first Icarus (whose faces flash eerily in lens flares and flashlight beams) decided to commit suicide by sun. They entered their own Observation Room and submitted to Searle’s temptation by dialing their filters all the way down. The sun’s rays burned them to ash, and their dust fills the halls of their haunted ship, reminding the crew of the Icarus 2 that man was born from stardust, the Earth’s elements created in fusion forges long ago. Very close to their goal, these men and women were not so different from the crew that succeeded them–in fact, both crews took the same joyous photograph upon lift-off from Earth–and their fate proves that the most dangerous enemy out here is psychological, not physical.
The insanity of a despair so deep and so suicidal that it insists on ending the entire human race is given human form within the story as the film’s second antagonist; but his job is merely to finish the work that Nature has already begun. The next deaths are horrible as well as symbolic. One character dies clutching a symbol of hope, a single green shoot growing in the ruined oxygen garden; another seems to have committed suicide from the guilt of risking the entire world. Characters experience extreme cold and extreme heat and they wither and shatter and scream and are destroyed. The human killer is insane but improbably strong; the film shoots him obliquely, hiding him behind filters and blurs. His physical degradation is matched by the degradation of his images, first in a glitched digital recording and then in the actual cinematography of the movie, and represents the horror of his continuing existence in a state of spiritual death. To the extent that Capa succeeds in resisting him, it is because Capa has finally regained his happy thoughts–because he accepts the inevitability of his own mortality and lets go of his fear. One reason science fiction and horror make such potent bedfellows is that at its purest form, sci-fi is about the attainment of wonder, an emotion so antithetical to fear and disgust that the transition between them is perversely simple. What Capa replaces his lost hope with isn’t hope but serenity, and his reward for doing so is, at long last, a sunny day.
Sunshine‘s director, Danny Boyle, is probably the most skillful filmmaker alive at utilizing different cinematic techniques of stylistic expression in service of a coherent whole. His Slumdog Millionaire combined game shows, mobster films, coming of age stories, and Bollywood romance (even a musical number!) into an exciting melange of sights, sounds, colors and tastes. His 127 Hours took a real life situation of extreme survival in Nature and “opened up” its claustrophobic narrative with a stream of consciousness series of dream sequences, flashbacks, hallucinations, and visions. And Boyle is also a significant horror director, from his early Shallow Grave, a British indie black comedy about the lengths ordinary people will go to for money to Sunshine to, of course, 28 Days Later…. The latter two films were collaborations with screenwriter Alex Garland, whose own directorial debut, Ex Machina, was one of the most interesting movies of 2015. 28 Days Later revitalized the zombie genre, and like Sunshine, also featured a full third act whose shift in tone and situation restated the film’s meaning and intentions with renewed clarity. To this film, Garland brings an extremely well-constructed script that moves from one great scene to the next with precision and economy, a sci-fi film that treats its situation with seriousness and verisimilitude, and a horror film of great interest and uniqueness. Boyle brings his flair for iconic visuals, for seamlessly blending reality and special effects, for effectively building and maintaining tension throughout. The performances do what they need to in a well-balanced ensemble; Cillian is a little wasted in leading man roles like this that don’t take advantage of his potential for weirdness, but Chris Evans is well cast here (and in plenty of other genre works, from the Captain America movies to Snowpiercer) as a man whose innate moral fiber forces him both into upsetting decisions and to endure horrors for the sake of the mission. Even Sunshine‘s score and sound design are a marvelous match to its beautiful sights, at turns unsettling and intense. This is a well-made, vastly entertaining movie with new ideas and something real to say about the destructive nature of despair, whose siren song is summed up in the distress beacon of the Icarus 1, the plaintive cry of a bird with melted wings:
But the myth of Icarus is not about Icarus at all; it’s about his father, Daedalus, who knows not to try and catch his falling son. So, too, does Sunshine remind us to always keep our happy thoughts and stay on the sunward path.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because the stakes have never been higher. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.