directed by danny boyle, starring cillian murphy, rose byrne, chris evans, mark strong, cliff curtis
1 out of 1 transubstantiations
To begin, something obvious: from our vantage, it’s easy to forget that the sun is the center of the solar system. But more than just the center of a bunch of looped, oval wires for planets to follow. The sun is a well we fall into, an explosion we run from, a god we spread leaves and panels for, laying them at the feet of this beast of fusion, saying, fill ‘er up. And as science teases apart its assembly line, hydrogen to helium, we still can’t quite scrub the strong odor of mysticism from our solar thoughts. Sunshine, the most colorful space movie made (literally and metaphorically), stands out from a genre stripmined for themes of life, death, loneliness, and human connection by staying to true to human wonder and fear.
The plot reads like a bad movie pitch that was vetted by a bunch of fat cat executives too lunchdrunk to care --
‘So the sun’s dying, right, and we have to send a nuke in to restart it and save mankind. Should be about $40 million.’
‘Uh huh. Sandy! Where’s that diet coke? You know how morning martinis get me.’
‘...so we’re good?’
‘What? Sure kid, sure. Sandy! Sandy? F%&@ing intercoms.’
Dumb premise or not, the movie delivers like a militarygrade amazon drone. No synopsis or trailer does this movie justice. Boyle has pedigree (trainspotting, 127 hours, slumdog millionaire, 28 days later) but even so, I can’t think of a movie that seems so unassuming going in, and so revelatory going out.
(Interestingly, the internet can’t seem to settle the question of whether restarting the sun is total fancy or plausible fancy. I buckled on my harness, donned a safety helmet, girded my loins, loined my girdles, and spelunked through a single page of comments. Several blows to my humanity and dignity later, I emerged, blinking and discombobulated, with the impression that most commentators (once a noble title, reserved for lilyskinned elites narrating cricket matches, now brung indescribably low) hated the movie on the grounds that it never explains how this bomb business is supposed to work---with frequent mishaps and much hrumpfing re ‘fission’ and ‘fusion’---or why the sun was dying in the first place. If you haven’t seen the movie, this gripe may sound reasonable, but really it’s missing the point by lightyears. More on this later.)
In a word, sunshine is striking. Eyes and ears first, then we’ll talk heart.
Space is generally monochrome. Setting a movie there would seem to present some serious limitations on color palette, but boyle and co. leverage a stark, bleak, duochrome setting (black space, grey spaceship) to thrust color deep into your rods and cones. The green of the plant room (‘oxygen garden’) is so vibrant it’s chewable. The blood (umm, spoilers?) a crimson smear of macabre fingerpaints across the screen. The golden, clunky spacesuits the holy armor of an order of oversized spaceknights.
But most of all, the sun. Not just an enormous swirling globe of plasmafire, but also an overwhelming wave of lustrous sublimation. The movie hits this immediately with the opening shots, showing searle (cliff curtis), the ship’s doctor/therapist/shaman, lightbathing in a futuristic solarium. Icarus, the ship, informs him in a soft, cool voice that he can view up to 3% of the sun’s energy for 30 seconds before he sustains retinal damage. Here, the movie batters your ears and eyes with quick cuts of a tumbling avalanche of solar wind skidding off icarus’s flanks. The sound slalom between silence and roar is what I imagine teleporting from a hurricane’s eye to arm would be.
The jumpy, disorientating changes from coherent to cacophony continue as a theme throughout. Always regarding the gravity well inferno they’re traveling into, as in capa’s (cillian murphy) recurring dream of tumbling, screaming, into the sun, but also around pinbacker’s (mark strong) very existence. The mad captain and prophet of doom is never addressed head on, but rather blurred in both appearance and sound. As if, touched by god or demon or simple psychosis, we can’t bear to grapple directly with his enlightened/ruined husk.
The first block of dialogue among the crew is an ode to transformation, searle’s attempt to describe the difference between being suspended in darkness---an absence and thus separate from you---and suspension in light---a strong, absorbing force that becomes you. And when the captain, kaneda (hiroyuki sanada), sacrifices himself and succumbs to the wind, he’s alone outside except for searle’s demanding, desperate voice in his headset, ‘kaneda, what do you see? What do you see??’
Here, sunshine dances between alien and the martian. A tale of engineering gone wrong with an overdose of primal fear and awe. Science is the vehicle for the plot, not the plot itself. It’s simply not important how or why the sun is dying, it’s important to look at the emotional connections between the crew as they struggle to survive and get their heads around the stakes of their mission. Confronting their distance from earth, the likelihood of a oneway trip, the possibility of failure, their expedability and more so the exact order of their expendability (what better way to strip away the illusion of your own importance than to know for sure that you’re worth more than the comms officer, but less than the nav officer?), brings out a peculiar kind of human bond that’s no less deep for its methodical calculation.
Not only do the crew confront each other, but also the idea of a higher power, each in their own way. Searle the evangelist sun worshipper, corazon (michelle yeoh) the pagan dirtlover and demigoddess, mace (chris evans) the cold savior serving an unforgiving mathematics, cassie (rose byrne) the devoted, intuitive humanist, harvey (troy garity) the panicked infidel, bowing only to himself, and capa the agnostic, reluctantly bearing the cross. Forces of darkness and light swoop down and pluck them away whether they stray from the path or not, straining their beliefs in science, reason, community, and god.
And behind it all, the sun. Conventionally an unadulterated lifeforce, boyle casts it as a divinity unconcerned with the mortals trying to resuscitate it. It’s neither good or evil, just an uncaring presence meting out death and wonder in equal measure. As the eponymous character, center of the solar system, lifegiver, 300pound gorilla, and allaround god, it anchors the characters’ lives and mysticism. Whether they embrace it (searle), resist it (mace), flee from it (harvey), or try to reconcile it (capa), ignorance is not allowed. Just as atheism is a religious choice, boyle’s science is a mystical one.