The Underappreciated Elegance of Danny Boyle & Alex Garland’s Sunshine

Written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle, Sunshine is one of many underappreciated science fiction films; possibly one of the best. I remember when this film was first released. I hit the premier Friday noon showing where I was one of a handful of eager sci-fi fans. Later, when Amazon VOD discounted it, I had like ten dollars left in my account. No matter; I clicked on that hypnotic ‘Buy Now’ button that my bank account so loathes (books, movies, and tv will be my financial ruin). Sunshine is one of my favorite films and I watch it once or twice a year. At least.

The cast is a diverse hodgepodge of glory including Michelle Yeoh and Rose Byrne; Cillian Murphy and Cliff Curtis; Chipo Chung as the voice of Icarus; Benedict Wong, Troy Garity and Mark Strong; and to top it all: Chris Evans and Hiroyuki Sanada in all of their furry magnificence, which Chris, once again like a bad habit, sheds early in the film (dammit, man! stop that!). You’ll note a few Danny Boyle regulars on that list.

Cillian Murphy’s voiceover is as exquisite as Chipo’s artificially intelligent Icarus. Their smooth quiet tones sail over your skin like those wonderful addictive rays of sunshine.

The premise:

“Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction.”

“A frozen Earth—a solar winter.”

“Our purpose—to create a star within a star.”

One of the thematic tones of the film is the beauty and peacefulness of nature versus the harsh realities of its essence; the perversion and indifference of its being alongside that of humanities. Humanities sadomasochistic need for the sun in all its glory. We are at one with it. Like Mother Earth, we need it; it doesn’t need us. You can feel the crew’s earnest reverence of all things nature when they celebrate the beauty of Mercury cruising between Icarus and the sun in that oh so lovely observation room (Can I get one of those in my house? I’d never have to leave the house again. Just bring me food). I instantly felt a kinship with these nerdy nature-loving scientists (are scientists anything but?) and all that singular devotion. How can anyone shun such passion? Of nature, how can we dismiss such majesty? Then I remember that the story’s premise is that their world is dying: “a frozen Earth—a solar winter.” They’re in the midst of an extinction level event and they know it. They don’t dismiss it as fake news, hyperbole or political rhetoric. We, however, really don’t get a feel for how it is back on Mother Earth and at only an hour and forty-seven minutes, I doubt we could explore it appropriately. I wonder though if this is that what it’s gonna take for us to wake up to our world dying? The equivalent of a solar winter? Albeit, we haven’t reached that Defcon level, yet, but we’re getting close. Not so much for Mother Earth actual (she’ll be around long after we’re dust), but the billions of people living in peril on her…and all that beauty, all that nature… can you live with all that death and destruction? 

“It takes eight minutes for light to travel from sun to Earth.”

As an artist, the use of color in the film also attracts me as do the lines. In the deep dark black recesses of space, we don’t expect such vibrant hues, but there it be: more beauty.

“It’s like taking a shower in light.”

“…darkness is the absence of something. It’s a vacuum.”

“…the light envelopes you. It becomes you.”

The complexities of personalities are easily portrayed by these lovely actors as they wait to drop their payload; most of which is fueled by Mace’s (Evans) pragmatic rationalities in direct contrast of his emotional outbursts or when he says “We’ll have a vote.” Eh? What kind of pragmatic rationalist wants the mercurial vote of such a volatile capricious species? Oh yes, an engineer amongst other scientists, heh. This democratic fealty is quickly dismissed from—of all things—the psychiatrist and doctor Searle played by Curtis: “No, no we won’t. We’re not a democracy. We’re a collection of astronauts and scientists. So we’re gonna make the most informed decision available to us.” Do I smell the strong stench of manipulation? Or the dissection of informed scientific arguments? Methinks it’s the latter, thank god. Captain Kaneda pushes the decision to the physicist, Capa (Murphy) who does not want that additional burden obviously. He’s already got billions of lives and Earth to worry about since it’s his payload doing the deed. That burden makes me tired just thinking of it.  

Wong’s navigator is what happens when you fuck up your math. Listen kids, math’s important. Harvey is another emotional fragile man and his ego in command and subversion to an earlier trope in the film discussed below.

And, of course, there is all the manliness. Can’t forget that:

“We have an excess of manliness breaking out in the comm center.”

This from Byrne’s Cassie, the pilot, who, like and unlike her namesake Cassandra (I imagine), is stubbornly humane and sensitive when it comes to a certain situation in spite of the consequences of her decision. Yeoh’s Corazon is nurturing and spiritual and once again, we see the same ole tropes for women drafted by men—one of the film’s major flaws (a slightly mild one considering the overall brilliance of the film and that women are portrayed adequately in STEM period). The spat between Icarus and Cassie and Icarus and Corazon at a crucial point in the film is telling, while the unflappable Mace and Kaneda sit calmly with the weight of their decisions even in the face of certain death. Michelle Yeoh’s last scene alone is why she is such an amazing talent. The underutilization of those three talented actresses—especially Yeoh and Chung—is infinitely painful to me. Imagine Yeoh or Chung as captain and Sanada as a biologist. I liked the subversion of Byrne’s typical pilot, but I’m imagining Evans as a good switch up and… I could go on; I won’t. 

Regardless, I love these characters in all their flawed scientific and human intricacies and I’m feeling the cravings for an explicit AO3 Cassie/Capa, Corazon/Mace and Cassie/Mace fanfics. Or even better: slashfic between Cassie/Corazon with Icarus narrating. Although, it seems Mace and Capa are the ones with the hawts for each other. 

Ok then…

There’s religion too amongst all that messiness in the form of Captain Pinbacker (think Sessions or Pence) that has the zealotry of all those radicalized Evangelical Christians who want to send us all to heaven, or, rather, those who believe in it. The irony is that Capa, the physicist, delivers the hope in not only the literal act but the florid one too: “Two last hopes are better than one.” To be fair, it’s Searle’s logic and the subsequent “unquantifiable” analysis that inspires Capa’s decision and floridness, but Capa stands in the end.

The philosophical debates alone during the film are fodder for the post-alcohol analysis. Along with an equally satisfying score, Sunshine is truly a great movie.

Note: After writing this and watching the film, again, I read the Wikipedia entry and found it incredibly interesting, especially in how I interpreted the film and how the actors played their characters. The writing and scientific inaccuracy is also an interesting read.

Sunshine is on Amazon.



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