Blazing Equations

Sunshine (2007)

illustration by Tom Ralston

Many of Sunshine‘s detractors complain that the film is a mess—beautiful, but a mess nonetheless—with suspect science that starts off strong before veering into slasher territory in its final third. The hard science isn’t hard enough; the crew makes too many stupid mistakes; the third-act appearance of a human antagonist stretches the boundaries of belief. 

But these critiques miss the point: Sunshine was always a horror movie, from the very first frame.

Slasher villains can’t be reasoned with or killed; they’ll only get up off the ground to kill again. The human antagonists of Sunshine—who could be anyone onboard the ship, depending on the crisis at hand—serve as focal points to refract the real danger, personified not by an individual but by the sun. Sunshine’s psycho killer is the immutable laws of physics. And its final girl isn’t an actual person, either; it’s a sense of human awe in the face of cold reality. If the movie falters, it’s not because of any shift in genre or tone, it’s because the film never draws a clear definition of what exactly constitutes that awe. The equation is unsolvable.

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Sunshine follows a crew of astronauts on a mission to restart a dying sun. The year is 2057, and Earth has descended into total winter, abandoned by the sun’s failing rays. The first mission—Icarus I—disappeared before completing their goal, and there will be no more missions following Icarus II; there simply aren’t enough resources left on Earth. The survival of the human race literally depends on “eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb,” according to the ship’s physicist, Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy). The unspoken variable in Capa’s description, of course, is human fallibility; astronauts are people, and people make mistakes. They forget important details, they’re selfish, they get angry with each other. Ship psychologist Searle (Cliff Curtis) makes a habit of sitting in the observation deck, stretching the limits of exposure to the sun’s light, making the rest of the crew question his sanity. Second mate James Mace (Chris Evans) suffers from “an excess of manliness,” according to engineer Cassie (Rose Byrne). Harvey (Troy Garity), the comms officer, is prone to panic.

Each crew member has their faults, but also their strengths. Icarus II is a specialized mission, populated by specialists. Everyone has a unique role to play, in a kind of balanced ecosystem that accounts for the needs of the entire crew. Biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) maintains the hydroponic garden that keeps the crew fed and the ship’s oxygen replenished. Navigator Trey (Benedict Wong) keeps the ship on course, while captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) keeps the crew unified in their mission. Their motivations are simple and straightforward, though not entirely parallel with each other; they come into conflict over questions of motives and methodology in the way that a small group of people trapped in an enclosed space will do after 16 long months inside.

The problem with Icarus II’s division of labor is that there’s no room for error. Once one thing goes wrong, the whole set of dominoes goes cascading down. If the crew can’t agree on a decision, they’ll deadlock, no longer able to work together toward their goals. Mission success depends on each crew member performing to the best of their abilities without interfering in one another’s jobs. Alex Garland’s script takes an unforgiving approach to hard science fiction, governed by laws that confine Icarus II’s crew to a small set of possible actions, which director Danny Boyle represents with fantastical flourishes. Direct exposure to sunlight at Icarus II’s close proximity to the sun can kill: even though the sun is dying out, it’s still a massive thermonuclear reaction, floating in space. When the light passes into an area that had previously been covered by shadow, it’s represented by a fiery wave. Expose yourself to the sun and you’ll burn, keep going toward the sun or the whole human race will die. Garland’s story is thought-exercise science fiction, the kind that’s interested in using a scenario to think philosophically about an aspect of human nature. Sunshine takes the concept of mortality and holds it up as a measuring stick against our capacity for hope, cooperation, and ultimately, religious awe.

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All fiction is speculative, to a degree, but the umbrella of “speculative fiction” covers a spectrum of imaginative storytelling ranging from hard science fiction to fantasy, with patches reserved for other genres like horror. The “harder” the science fiction, the more tightly defined the scientific laws that outline the boundaries of what is and is not possible. Space operas like Star Wars don’t bother with rules grounded in physics, so they land on the soft end of the spectrum; horror movies like Alien represent a recognizably realistic simulacrum of human society that lend the film a hard-science shell, a believability that makes the softer, gooey xenomorph center all the more horrifying. Garland’s script is a little closer to the hard-science end of the spectrum, albeit simplified for the purposes of the story the filmmakers want to tell. Sunshine is set about 50 years into the future, and the premise is grounded in concrete rules: the sun’s going cold, we can light it back up by dropping a bomb into it, and despite its failing light, its rays remain deadly to human beings. The catch is that the mission must be a manned one, amplifying the possibility for failure.

The science in hard science fiction doesn’t need to be proven fact. Speculative fiction depends on a “what if?” scenario that takes a premise and alchemizes it into a story that hasn’t yet happened, but given the right conditions, could possibly happen. The genre demands a suspension of disbelief among its viewers, a need to trust the storyteller to bring them to a logical conclusion, even when the story violates the physical rules of the universe. Sunshine posits that the sun is dying, and that we can bring it back with a bomb; if you’re not on board with the premise, or with the questions that the script asks as an extension of that premise, then the ride is going to get bumpy.

Spiritually, Sunshine is an heir to mid-century science fiction short stories like Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” which pits sentimentality against the laws of physics necessary to make space travel work. “The Cold Equations” is about an astronaut who’s running an emergency mission to a distant planet and who must deal with a stowaway on his ship. The fuel for the astronaut’s ship has been calculated precisely to get him and his payload to his destination; interstellar law demands that any stowaway be airlocked immediately, lest the excess weight prevent the ship from fulfilling its mission. The astronaut must weigh the life of the stowaway—a teenage girl, unaware of the price she must pay for her actions—against the lives of himself and the men on the other end of his space flight. Physics wins out, despite the astronaut’s best efforts; no one else can come rescue the stowaway, and she accepts the death sentence of the airlock. 

Godwin’s short story is written to probe the limits of physics and human compassion, but it comes across as cloying, an unintentional indictment against the human systems that enabled the predicament in the first place. Speculative fiction is written to ask “what if?” but often results in a statement about the way its author sees the world instead. Godwin’s cold equations could have been balanced if the emergency ships had been designed to carry spare fuel to account for unexpected variables, rather than blaming physics for the logistical problems that its characters face. It’s intended as a gotcha, a thought experiment that takes no real variables into account, only people as plot devices. The story is a sentimental trolley problem. A system is only as trustworthy as its weakest point.

Garland’s script, like Godwin’s story, is a thought experiment, albeit one that lends a better sense of personhood and agency to its characters. The metaphor isn’t the only point, though it does threaten to swallow the surface-level plot whole. Still, the crises that dot the plot are a series of trolley problems, one after the other. The crew of Icarus II must weigh the option to divert their course and investigate a distress signal from Icarus I against the possibility that diverting the mission will endanger their ability to complete it. They must also weigh the life of a crew member performing necessary repairs against the safety of the entire ship. They’re forced to consider killing several of their own in order to have enough oxygen to reach their destination. These are the kinds of questions that have haunted science fiction since its inception: if we tweak the limitations of the universe, how does humanity change in response? The most compelling questions Sunshine asks are also the least well-defined: when all hope seems lost, how can humanity keep moving forward? Guts, stubbornness, a belief in a higher power? 

We’re asked to have faith in the premise of the script, and later, by extension, in Garland and Boyle’s joint exploration of the problem of faith in general. Writer and director, had distinct jobs in the creation of the movie, and distinctly different interpretations of the source material: a meta mirroring of the specialized roles and philosophies of Icarus II’s crew. Garland reads his own script as being about the failures of faith placed in a God-like entity—the sun; the astronauts think they’ve encountered God, but haven’t really. Boyle interprets the script as the astronauts actually meeting God in the void of space, and coming away changed by their encounter with the divine. Garland and Boyle’s extra-textual dueling perspectives harmonize with the fact that every crew member within the confines of the story has a different response to the possibility that There Might Be Something Out There, which they can’t manage to fully understand. 

The problem with faith is that it can never be proven, only tested, a fact that runs at angles to the fabric of science fiction, which often takes unproven theory at face value. This tension is a recipe for sticky, unsolvable stories.  Bump the two against each other, and you’ll get a wide array of fascinating questions with answers not everyone will like, let alone agree with. Still, the friction between them attracts metaphysical questions, dust collected by static.

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Faith and science are attempts to understand the things that make human beings vulnerable, whether the force of gravity, illness of the body, the sublime, or some warping of the soul or spirit. Stories about space emphasize the fragility of human life. We’re not suited to the environment. Our organs don’t work as well without gravity, and even the protective skin of a spaceship is so thin when considered against the vast cold of the void and the boiling radiation that heaves its way across space and time. The setting opens up room for pondering metaphysical questions as well: are we alone, literally or figuratively? And regardless of the answer, how should we live?

The crew of Icarus II are fragile in the face of the sun and the void. Their ship might have artificial gravity, and they might be close to self-sufficient, but every system they use is a potential failure point—if it isn’t a problem now, it will be in the future. The garden that replenishes their oxygen supply can burn; the shield that protects them from the brunt of the sun’s power can fail. Their comms system will cut out once they reach a certain distance away from Earth. They’re alone, cut off from humanity and on edge with each other, reaching for connection or else rejecting it entirely. Some turn toward the sun in an attitude that resembles religious awe, while others shy away in fear.

Nothing communicates this vulnerability better than the space suits they wear when leaving Icarus II: cumbersome humanoid shapes, with chubby arms and legs like a baby’s. Rather than the bubble shape of stereotypical space suits, the visors are thin, protruding slits, like a welder’s glass that’s straining toward the thing it’s designed to protect against. The gold reflective foil of the exterior is thick, with a basket-woven texture, a reminder of a much earlier human technology that carried food and water and the elements of life long before we ever dreamed of traveling in space. The basket weave is a reminder of fragility, and the possibility of failure. Leave a wide enough gap in the armor, and something unwanted could get through.

Because something always gets through. It’s Murphy’s Law—if it can happen, it will happen—and Garland’s script is built around the systems the crew depends on to survive, demonstrating each as working before cutting them down as failure points. The astronauts aren’t incompetent; they’ve been doing this work for well over a year. They’ve simply done what human beings do under pressure. They crack, they get complacent, they are dealt bad luck, and each successive failure leads them to make difficult decisions about how to survive—and who gets to live. Garland daisy-chains a series of trolley problems together in Sunshine, one after another, so that when a problem has been solved, another gets triggered. His own cold equations have no room for redundancy, and they can only be solved through difficult choices that invariably lead to death.

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Boyle presents the breakdown of Icarus II as though it’s a warping of the film stock on which the story is told. Splashes of lens flare, hot yellows and neon greens, slash their way across the crew’s living quarters, even before everything goes wrong. The film grows increasingly abstract visually as it plays out, the lens flares becoming more prominent, punctuating shots with startling double exposure. Crew members converse with each other in shots where the speaker is framed alone, interlocutors out of frame, replaced by reflections of the speaker in the dull shine of bulkheads and metal walls. As the conversations grow more urgent, they become quieter. If Icarus II is a ship, it’s more akin to a submarine than a sailing vessel—its bulk hidden behind a shield to preserve it from the malevolent gaze of the sun—and the crew behaves accordingly, speaking almost in whispers to avoid being overheard, echoing the behavior of submariners who must keep silent lest their motions be picked up on sonar. The sun’s rays take on the motion and noise of violence, roaring past the ship in the vacuum of space, like fire that has escaped from hell.

Searle finds beauty in the violence of the sun’s light. Mace, too, finds comfort in contemplating things he can’t control, playing back videos from earth of ocean waves lashing the shoreline. Though they have different personal philosophies, the two weather the fear of an increasingly closer sun with serenity. Searle accepts his fate when he realizes that he’ll never return to Earth, choosing instead to help the mission as best he can before succumbing to the sun’s heat as though it’s an embrace. Mace is less romantic, but just as matter-of-fact when he faces death. The rest of the crew reacts to their plight with varying levels of unease. This unease boils over after they rendezvous with Icarus I, a dusty ship abandoned near Mercury, a haunted house on the edge of known space, a harbinger of what’s to come. After the two ships dock together, the editing gets more aggressive, with flashes of the first crew’s faces inserted a few frames at a time between cuts, lasting just long enough for the eye to register that something isn’t right. The flashing smiles give way to images of burned skin. The image begins to smear and judder, shaking where it once had only trembled. The horror insists upon itself until it springs, fully formed, from the center of Icarus I

Pinbacker (Mark Strong) has lived in the ruins of Icarus I for years, driven mad by the rays of the sun. He claims the fire is his god now, and he won’t suffer another mission to succeed where his own had failed. A distant, uncaring god can be just as scary as an actively malevolent one. The sun—and by extension or replacement, God—has abandoned Earth, and Pinbacker is forced to face his horror of the situation in the void between planet and sun. He accepts his fear of mortality by taking humanity entirely out of the equation. Humans aren’t supposed to master the sun, he reasons. When it’s time to die, it’s time.

We never see him properly. The camera shakes too much, blurring the lines of his form as though he’s lost his whole being alongside his humanity, driven mad by the sun. He speaks like he’s been touched by the divine and come through the fire fundamentally changed. He’s an eldritch monster, though he’s taken on the mantle of messenger for the sun to the unwitting crew of Icarus II, a kind of angel with a burned body. Pinbacker’s personal equation is blazing hot, an altar on which he’s willing to sacrifice the rest of humanity. Let Earth die alongside the star it orbits; let the solar system serve as a cold mausoleum. Pinbacker stalks the remaining crew of Icarus II as a personification of the sun’s impersonal rage. But where the sun is impartial, Pinbacker is actively murderous.

Here the suspension of belief, the capstone needed to maintain faith in Garland and Boyle’s respective visions, begins to falter. Garland’s script, though focused on the tension between faith and science, fails to define the variable of faith in a way that remains entirely believable. For Garland, a committed atheist, there is no rational belief in a higher power; the equation won’t solve. The film itself never fully defines the terms of the respective faiths of its crew members, either. The script, under Boyle’s direction, is an outsider looking in, trying to get the variables to balance. The nature of faith is that it is irrational. Capa and Cassie (and Searle before them) find wonder in the divine in the end; they’re not harnessing technology for mastery over the elements, nor—like Pinbacker—are they fundamentalists bent on defending a god that doesn’t require rescue. They’re using the tools they have to try to re-balance an equation that was unsolvable in the first place, and are surprised by their results.

Boyle treats the conclusion as a wedding of sorts between science and religion and horror, an opportunity for wonder, explicitly calling back to Dave Bowman’s tumbling down the wormhole in 2001: A Space Odyssey with freeze-frame shots of Capa’s face, surrounded by the fire of the dying star.  The reference hints at the sublime without fully managing to break through into transcendence. Capa himself remains in the middle ground, removed from the camera by at least an arm’s length, emotionally distant, asymptotically close. We see the wonder on his face, but we can’t follow him there. We can’t solve the equation with him. Maybe we were never intended to. Or maybe there’s a spark just waiting to ignite.