UNDERRATED / SUNSHINE
Written by Jack O'Kennedy
“Our sun is dying, mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago the Icarus project sent a mission to restart the sun but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I Robert Capa, and a crew of seven left earth frozen in a solar winter. Our payload, a stellar bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island. Our purpose, to create a star within a star. Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb.
Welcome to the Icarus II.”
So begins Danny Boyle’s 2007 science fiction film Sunshine, with nuclear physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) elegantly laying out out the films doomsday scenario and the mission undertaken to save the earth from a never ending deep freeze and the subsequent death of the human race. To say Boyle’s seventh film in the director’s chair was divisive is something of a misnomer. Whilst it did indeed split the critics, it barely registered on the typical filmgoer’s radar, making back just over three quarters of its meagre (for a film of its type) forty million dollar budget. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that a film which walks a brilliantly fine line between hard science fiction and thrilling, populist entertainment failed to connect with audiences when it was released.
Memorable visuals and sound design are two essential components of any worthwhile science fiction film and Sunshine doesn’t disappoint on either front. From an aesthetic point of view it remains one of the most arresting films of the last decade. The golden, bulky spacesuits worn by Capa and Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) with their limited mobility and thin rectangular visor are instantly iconic. The same can be said of the design for the Icarus II itself, with its curved, solar plate covered dome at the bow, deflecting the relentless heat of the sun from the long, elegant body of the ship with its softly blinking lights and smoothly revolving communication towers. Cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler gets to show off his entire bag of tricks, drifting between breathtaking wides that highlight the ships insignificance against the behemoth that is the sun and the oppressive interiors of the Icarus II and Kappa’s claustrophobic, sweat filled spacesuit. He plays with focus when depicting heat to great effect, giving us barely visible glimpses of Pinbacker (Mark Strong) revealing himself to Kappa in the third act or Kaneda’s grisly death that sees him flashing in and out of focus as he is engulfed by a wall of flame.
The real strength of the visuals is brought to the fore by Boyle’s typically brilliant marriage of lush images with John Murphy’s stirring score. During the opening act of the film his softly distorted guitars lends an ease to the proceedings as we float gently through space. However, the sounds become jagged, harsh and abrasive as tragedy befalls the crew and the mission devolves into chaos. The absolute highlight is Murphy’s soaring orchestral work Adagio in D Minor which gives an almost religious euphoria to Kaneda’s sacrifice. The score is repeated again during another moving sequence as Capa takes his final walk in his spacesuit, creating an emotional arc as he struggles, falls and ultimately rises, making the final journey to set off his bomb.
Sunshine is a film built on oppositions. The most obvious of those being darkness and light. For the first half of its run time, we are presented with an Icarus II (the somewhat pessimistic name of the crew’s spacecraft) filled with welcoming corridors of bright, comforting light, with an oxygen garden of vivid green vegetation and a crew who are bathed in the warm, golden glow of the sun which they take in from the comfort of their observation deck. As the narrative unfolds however and the mission becomes compromised, the light gradually gives way to a creeping, malevolent darkness. The Icarus II becomes an oppressive half lit labyrinth. The expanse of space that envelops it becomes a black abyss ready to swallow up the crew into its vast nothingness and the once welcoming sun mutates into a loudly burning and ferociously blinding harbinger of death.
These oppositions can also be applied to the crew themselves. Within their group dynamic (particularly the fraught relationship between Capa and Chris Pine’s engineer Mace) the film creates a brilliant tension between the cold rationale of scientific logic and the emotional and unpredictable nature of the human heart. Those who find themselves frustrated by films in which characters make terrible mistakes for no good reason will struggle to find issues here. Every move made by the crew of Icarus II is talked through in purely rational terms. At one point Mace decides that they’ll vote on a major decision until the ship’s psychiatrist Searle (Cliff Curtis) reminds him that “We are not a democracy. We’re a collection of astronauts and scientists, so we’re gonna make the most informed decision available to us”. This approach might sound like it makes for woeful drama, but it’s the conflict between the crews logical sensibilities and their humanity which crash violently off one another as the mission unfolds that makes the film so compelling.
Rather appropriately, the push and pull between life and death is the final tension that Boyle’s film reveals to us. The characters conceived and written by Boyles frequent collaborator Alex Garland are on a mission to bring back life to a dying star and in turn ensure the survival of the human race. Theirs is a truly humanitarian mission but one fraught with death at every turn. The shadow of their predecessors (the passengers of Icarus I) hang over them; their smiling faces appearing in brief, Fight Club style flashes as their charred remains are discovered aboard their ash filled ship. There’s a knowing irony in the way that the continued existence of mankind depends on the detonation of an enormous nuclear bomb. This idea of death and destruction begetting life can also be seen in the sacrificial nature of the crew. Kappa doesn’t make it the furthest because he’s the strongest, the most resourceful or even the smartest of his group. He does so because his colleagues recognise that he’s the only one who can complete the mission. So Kaneda dies to fix the solar plates, saving Kappa, Searle dies to open the airlock, saving Kappa and Mace dies to restore the ship’s power, saving Kappa. It’s not the man nor the individual that matters, but man’s collective survival that counts.
The weighty themes, stunning action, pulsing score and memorable characters combine to make sunshine into a modern masterpiece, one that deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Metropolis, 2001 and Solaris.