God Bless the Telephone

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

“By the time you get this message, I’ll be in the Dead Zone. It came a little sooner than we thought. But this means you won’t be able to send a message back. So I just wanted to let you know that I don’t need the message. I know everything you want to say.”

A spacecraft called the Icarus II is hurtling towards the sun. The crew has just been informed that in less than 24 hours, solar winds will have rendered their communication towers inoperable; they knew this was going to happen but they didn’t know it was going to happen this soon. If they have any final calls they want to make home, they better do it now, their captain advises. “We’ll finally be on our own,” Cassie (Rose Byrne) says. “We’re 55 million miles from Earth,” replies Mace (Chris Evans).”I’d say we’re already on our own.” The crew of the Icarus II is on a mission; their home is freezing, and so—using a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan Island—they must reignite the dying sun. This is Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

In February 2015, I was driving my parent’s Ford Focus through sprawling Oklahoma farmland and across vast New Mexico desert. I’d left my home of the past 23 years; snow-covered Indiana, which shrunk smaller and smaller in my rear view mirror as the heat and smog of California loomed large ahead. I tried to listen to books on tape but couldn’t keep focus. I tried listening to music but my stomach ached and my eyes watered and so I mostly drove in silence. My phone buzzed occasionally with a text from my girlfriend or my mom asking how the trip was going. The exhilarating promise of opportunity that California held for me-the only thought I’d held fast to over the past few months-was suddenly diminished by the anxiety and desperate loneliness I was sure would be waiting for me there.

Every space travel film, whether directly or not, grapples with the terrifying prospect of loneliness. Loneliness on an intergalactic, infinitely expansive, incomprehensible scope. In space, no one can hear you scream. But it’s more than that; no one can hear you laugh, either. Or cry, or swear, or sing. No one can listen to you talk about your day. No one can tell you everything is going to be fine. You’ve never experienced true isolation until you’ve experienced isolation in space.

What does that feel like? How can a person survive extended space travel with their sanity intact? Sunshine is interested in these questions. As we wander the halls of the Icarus II, gliding through corridors and into the crew member’s bunks, we see what hobbies they’ve picked up to combat the crushing despair of interplanetary loneliness. Harvey (Troy Garity) listens to his “space music”. Mace spends time watching waves crash into a pier in an Earth-simulation room. Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) cares for the plants in the ship’s greenhouse. And Searle (Cliff Curtis), the crew’s psych officer, spends his free time on the observation deck, breathing in the warm comfort of the sun’s rays. Through a protective filter, Searle subjects himself to higher and higher doses of pure, blinding sunlight. At 3.1% of its full power, the blast of sunshine is enough to take Searle’s breath away. The light rings in his ears. When describing the sensation to his fellow crew members, Searle contrasts it to sensory deprivation chambers. “You and the darkness are distinct from each other, because darkness is the absence of something. It’s a vacuum. But total light, it envelops you. It becomes you.” It’s easy to understand why being enveloped in warmth would be an appealing option to a man who is 55 million miles away from everyone he loves.

Very quickly after arriving in Los Angeles, I realized I needed to find mechanisms for coping with homesickness. After a few attempts at cultivating familiarity, I landed in—of all places—the warm embrace of corporate chains. In California, where everything was so exotic and different than Indiana, I suddenly found immeasurable comfort inside the walls of a Target. Step over that gray and red welcome mat, through the sliding glass doors, and I may as well have stepped back into Lafayette, Indiana. I was home, and home was a big box. Given the option of California’s infinitely adventurous cuisine, I nonetheless found myself going to Wendy’s, Arby’s, Pizza Hut. They were familiar. I embraced the comforting glow of corporate America, much like Searle embraced the warm glow of the sun.

Of course, the most immense comfort I discovered in Los Angeles was the video call home. The video call is a staple of nearly every space exploration film, from 2001 to Interstellar, and for good reason. I can attest, from experience, that when you’re lying on an air mattress in a shitty apartment on Lankershim Boulevard, Skype can be the tether to Earth you need. That tether is severed in the opening minutes of Sunshine when the ship’s satellite signal is lost. I can’t imagine the devastation a person must feel, suddenly adrift in space, with no contact or connection to all the things that remind you that you’re human.

I was lucky: I had the ability to escape California. All I needed was a decent Wi-Fi connection and a screen, and I could instantly be back in the living room with my parents. I could see my dog, Midge, who my dad would always lift up and try to get to look my way. (She never would. I don’t think dogs grasp the concept of Skype.) I could step into my girlfriend’s apartment. I could have a beer with my best friend. While the pieces of my life were exploding and rearranging like endless particles in an accelerator, everything back home stayed exactly the way I remembered it, cryogenically frozen in the chamber that is the rural Midwest. My dad was trying out a new circular saw he bought at Lowe’s. My mom was preparing for another Book Fair at the elementary school where she worked. It was snowing, and she was dreading having to take Midge for a walk. What a gift, to be able to glimpse through the looking glass and see your loved ones on the other side, same as they ever were. To appropriate a sentiment expressed by the singer Labi Siffre, God bless the telephone.

The catalyst for the events of Sunshine spring from the discovery that Icarus I, a failed sister ship, is still emitting a distress beacon from somewhere out there in the vast darkness of space. Everyone previously assumed the ship had been destroyed, its crew killed. Yet there it is, playing through the ship’s speakers: The Icarus I is crying for help. The problem is, in order to intercept and rescue the downed ship, the current crew will have to alter their own trajectory, adjusting their mission. The enormous decision of whether or not to do this is laid upon the shoulders of the ship’s nuclear physicist, Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy). “Shit,” he replies. Shit is right. The Icarus I is still carrying a (presumably) functioning payload. This is the variable that finally sways Capa’s decision. “Two last chances are better than one,” he reasons. The decision is made. The fates of everyone on board are sealed.

Capa’s choice haunts every subsequent frame of Sunshine. In a frighteningly short amount of time, it becomes inarguably apparent that the crew of the Icarus II is doomed.  Not doomed the way teenagers in a Friday the 13th movie are doomed, but literally. Scientifically. Mathematically. Logically. We know it. The characters know it. And yet, Mace continues maintaining the coolant tanks and Capa repairs the solar panels. They trudge onward.

The spider web of grim consequences that shatters outward from Capa’s initial decision is fascinating and terrifying to watch play out. Every time I see the film (and I’ve probably seen it about a dozen times now), I’m genuinely unsettled by the inevitably building dread the movie sustains. Screenwriter Alex Garland (eight years before he would explore themes of loneliness and isolation in a very different sci-fi film) imbues every scene with an oppressive sense of fatality. Every tough decision leads to a catastrophe, which leads to a tougher decision. The consequences of each choice tumble forward like dominos, resulting in a slow death march to the surface of the sun. It’s brutal. Boyle highlights the danger lurking around every corner by alternating scenes of awed, hushed quiet with staccato, harsh violence. Sunshine‘s outer space is both peaceful and thundering, awe-inspiring and lethal. It’s claustrophobia in a vacuum and agoraphobia in a space suit.

The biggest roadblock to the completion of the mission comes from the film’s “monster”, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), the captain of Icarus I. Left on his own after a catastrophic meteor shower destroyed their ship, he slowly succumbs to insanity. His mind warped, his body tarred and mutilated by constant exposure to the sun. He is a monster entirely the product of his own isolation. He is loneliness embodied. The light becomes him. While rendezvousing with Icarus I, Pinbacker sneaks aboard Icarus II and wreaks havoc, convinced he is carrying out God’s plan.

All of this catastrophe, this violence and destruction, springs from that initial, crucial choice made by Capa. The entire film is steeped to a dark shade of regret. “We should never have gone off the mission,” Mace says late in the film, and it’s hard to disagree with him. We’re left to wonder what these character’s fates might have been had they not chosen to investigate their colleague’s ship. These questions haunt Capa for the entire film. Did he make the right choice? Did he do the right thing?

The same questions bounced around my head, like a sneaker banging around inside a dryer, all 2,121 miles of my journey west. These questions, I think, plague anyone who has ever made a big move. They plague anyone who has ever gotten married, gotten a divorce, left a job, started a family. Anyone who has ever felt alone. Did I make the right choice? Did I do the right thing?

Sunshine ends where it began, with a phone call home. This time, we’re on the receiving end. Back on the frozen, snow-covered Earth, Capa’s sister plays his video message as her children play in the snow around her. “Just remember,” the recording says. “It takes eight minutes for light to travel from Sun to Earth… So if you wake up one morning, and it’s a particularly beautiful day, you’ll know we made it.” She smiles, and looks up.

When I was driving through Texas, a strange thing happened. I was cruising at 80 mph down the deserted highway. I could see rolling hills expanding outward from me in every direction. Miles of endless grass and asphalt. A dot appeared on the horizon in my rear-view mirror. It approached and revealed itself to be a van, eventually pulling up alongside me to pass. I noticed that the woman in the passenger seat was frantically waving at me, trying to get my attention. Glancing over at her, the infinite universe violently collapsed, shrinking until it could comfortably fit inside a thimble. The woman in the passenger seat was Emily Hickman Stone, my assistant theater director from when I’d acted in elementary school plays. She had moved to Kentucky when I was eleven and I hadn’t seen her in twelve years, but now—in the lonely plains of Texas—she was riding in a van next to me, waving and laughing in disbelief.

The universe may be impossibly big, but sometimes, thank God, it doesn’t feel that way.