Over the years, there have been many theories about when the world will end but one of the more prevalent was the mistaken belief that doomsday would befall us on December 21st 2012 based on the Mayan calendar ending on this day. Of course, not only did this not happen but it wasn’t even based on any actual fact to begin with but, nevertheless, doomsday scenarios have been an enduring genre in fiction so I figured today was a good day to explore this popular concept.
Released: 6 April 2007
Director: Danny Boyle
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Budget: $40 million
Stars: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Mark Strong
In the year 2057, the Sun is dying thanks to a destructive Q-Ball; as a result, the Earth has entered a new ice age and humanity is on the brink of extinction. In a desperate attempt to ignite the Sun, a crew of scientists and astronauts is sent on a last-ditch effort to deliver a nuclear device into the star, but their efforts run into disaster when they stumble across another ship and find themselves stalked by a fanatical madman driven to insanity by the Sun’s mere presence.
By 2007, British director and producer Danny Boyle had made a name for himself, most notably with the critically-acclaimed Trainspotting (ibid, 1996) and the post-apocalyptic zombie horror 28 Days Later (ibid, 2002), when he was presented with the concept for what would become Sunshine. The script, as conceived by writer Alex Garland, was funded partially by Fox Searchlight and numerous outside investors, which afforded Boyle a great deal of creative freedom. Boyle and Garland worked on the script for a year and consulted with one of my favourite scientific personalities, Doctor Brain Cox, regarding the scientific accuracy of the concept, who dismissed criticisms of the film’s science in favour of creative license. Boyle assembled an ensemble cast of international characters to show all of mankind uniting in the face of their destruction, and consulted with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) regarding the technology and presentation of the interior and exterior of the ship. Sadly, Sunshine’s $32 million worldwide gross made it a box office disappointment and the film was met with mixed reviews that mostly focused on the abrupt twist towards slasher movie territory for the ending. Personally, I found Sunshine to be one of the most poignant and underappreciated science-fiction movies ever made and am glad to see that it has developed something of a cult following since its release, and it’s my pleasure to revisit it for this review.
Sunshine begins with Doctor Robert Capa (Murphy) outlining the basic premise and some of the history of the film; the Sun is dying due to unknown reasons, pushing mankind to the brink of extinction due to the Earth slowly freezing over. Seven years before the start of the movie, Icarus was sent on a mission to restart the Sun but was mysteriously lost before it could deliver its payload; Capa and the rest of his crew have spent the last sixteen months travelling towards the Sun aboard Icarus II carrying a “stellar bomb” with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island in a last ditch effort to “create a star within a star”. The eight-person crew is an interesting mixture of personalities, nationalities, faiths, and specialisms, with each member having a specific field and function on the ship, while also operating not in a democracy but based on who is the most qualified and informed to make certain decisions.
Capa is the genius behind both the stellar bomb and the mission to restart the Sun; a physicist who is something of a quiet outsider, Capa finds his nights haunted by horrifying nightmares of him falling, screaming, towards the surface of the Sun and his days preoccupied with checking and double-checking his calculations and simulations for the stellar bomb. Essentially, Capa is worried that the bomb won’t actually do the job since it’s obviously untested; the simulations are often inconclusive, meaning that he is working somewhat on faith in the scientific accuracy of the bomb’s payload, and thus he agrees that it is only logical for the Icarus II to intercept Icarus I and retrieve its bomb to double their chances. Capa is a humble man just trying to do the best job he can who fills his messages back to his family with reassurances, but comes into frequent conflict with the ship’s engineer, Mace (Evans), a rugged and confrontational individual who isn’t afraid to call others out on their mistakes and often lets his emotions get the better of him. As hot-headed and blunt as he can be, though, Mace is absolutely devoted to the mission, to the point where he is willing to sacrifice his life (and considers all of their lives expendable) in service of completing the mission and saving the world. Still, he is an abrasive and hypocritical character; tensions between him and Capa rise after they get into a fight over the communications system and, while they share an awkward apology over the matter, Mace continues to antagonise Capa, volunteering him for a dangerous mission to repair the ship’s damaged solar panels and then later blaming him for endangering the crew despite all projections suggesting that the risk was worthwhile.
The crew are kept fed and breathing thanks to the efforts of biologist Corazon (Yeoh), who maintains the ship’s “oxygen garden”, and the ship is kept on track thanks to the efforts of pilot Cassie (Byrne). These two are the only female members aboard Icarus II and prove to be two of the more emotionally stable amongst the crewmembers; of the two, though, Corazon is probably the least developed and interesting. Although she’s the first to suggest that they need to trim their numbers in order to maximise their resources and reach the payload destination, Corazon doesn’t really have much of a presence or much to do beyond caring for the plants; she’s thus naturally horrified when the oxygen garden is destroyed, and unceremoniously murdered while trying to salvage some life from the torched garden. Cassie is far more prominent, but not by much; she also suffers from nightmares of the Sun and is very much the heart of the crew and the one who maintains the most humanity throughout the mission. She clearly cares about the entire crew, even an asshole like Mace, and has an obvious affection for Capa (though their relationship stays plutonic and professional throughout the film), and refuses to participate in their vote about killing one of their own to conserve their oxygen supply later in the film. Ultimately, however, Cassie really doesn’t have too much of an impact on the film beyond being a source of emotional support for Capa and a representative of the humanity the crew struggles to maintain out in the void, and push Capa towards seeing the mission through to its conclusion, even at the cost of their lives.
Icarus II is captained by Kaneda (Sanada), a stoic and practical man without ego who is happy to defer to the expertise of the other crew members when it comes to certain decisions. Fully aware of the magnitude and risks of the mission, he appears to be a well-respected authority figure who does a decent job of keeping everyone focused and on track with the mission; when they enter the communications “dead zone” seven days early, he emphasises that it’s not something for them to get worked up about since they were fully prepared for the resulting communications blackout, and when they discover Icarus I he leaves the decision regarding docking with it to Capa, recognising that he’s the most qualified man to make that risk assessment. While maintaining a professionalism at all times, Kaneda grows concerned about their mission the closer they get to the Sun since Icarus I disappeared at around the same point as they find themselves at the start of the movie and he pours over Captain Pinbacker’s (Strong) video logs for some answer to what happened to the ship. Interestingly, when the Icarus II is damaged due to a misalignment of the shields, it’s Kaneda who volunteers to head out on a space walk to repair the damage, which isn’t something I would expect from the ship’s captain. Unfortunately, this proves to be a fatal decision as Kaneda is unable to make it back to safety and is incinerated by the Sun’s rays, which greatly affects the moral of the crew and the stability of their mission. With Kaneda gone, the chain of command falls to the far less respected and far more ineffectual Harvey (Troy Garity), a communications officer whose job is made completely redundant when the ship loses its communications antenna. Harvey struggles to make competent decisions and to be a rallying force; he also ends up suffering a horrific fate during a dangerous space jump between the two ships, which sees him floating off into the empty void and choking/freezing to death in the vacuum.
Searle (Curtis) acts as the ship’s doctor and psychologist; a clinical and pragmatic man, he helps to maintain crew moral and mental health aboard the ship, which grows increasingly strained due to the seriousness of the mission and the isolation of being so far away from loved ones. These issues are primarily embodied by Mace, who exhibits violent and aggressive behaviour towards Capa on a number of occasions, but also by Trey (Benedict Wong), the ship’s navigator, who falls into a suicidal depression after endangering the mission due to a miscalculation. Searle attempts to maintain order on the ship through counselling but, as rational as he is, he has grown obsessed with the power, magnitude, and beauty of the Sun; he regularly sits in the observation room to view the Sun without protective filters and it’s here that we get the first hints towards the Sun as this overwhelming, almost God-like force that has a significant impact on each member of the crew. Both Capa and Cassie admit to having recurring nightmares about the surface of the Sun, and we later find that Pinbacker has taken Searle’s fascination with the Sun’s astounding force to dangerous and destructive levels. Forced to board Icarus I when the oxygen garden is destroyed by Trey’s mishap, the crew find a dead and lifeless ship; the remains of the crew sit immolated in the observation room and the payload has been sabotaged, but the ship hides an even more destructive secret. Pinbacker, a scarred and burned mess of a man, has managed to survive in orbit around the Sun over the last seven years; driven to insanity by the Sun, which he believes “speaks” to him and which he worships as a God, Pinbacker stows aboard Icarus II and sets about sabotaging the ship and murdering the crew since he believes that humanity is destined to meet their extinction at the hands of his God.
One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Sunshine is the bleak atmosphere of the film; like many doomsday scenarios, this is a story where, on paper, everything should have gone exactly as planned but, thanks to a minor miscalculation and an unforeseen element of danger, the entire mission is put into jeopardy and all of the crew become fatally endangered. It’s something about these films that I’ve always found incredibly appealing on an emotional level; Icarus II is literally the last chance for humanity as the last remnants of the Earth’s resources have been put into constructing the ship and its payload, so they cannot afford to fail, and the crew largely accept the very real possibility that they might not make it back from their mission or even succeed since the stellar bomb’s success is entirely theoretical. This bleak tone is perfectly reflected in the film’s presentation and the presence (or absence) of sound; exterior sound is notably more muted than in many sci-fi films, which is very much appreciated, and much of the events are punctuated by light, ambient sounds and a building score courtesy of Underworld and John Murphy. This culminates in the film’s most emotional and impactful orchestral number, “Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor)”, a poignant and stirring tune that has since been used in many other films and trailers and never fails to get an emotional response from me; most notably, it definitely makes Kaneda’s death, and the dramatic finale of the film, all the more impactful.
Sunshine was easily Danny Boyle’s most ambitious and effects-heavy film to date, and something of a dramatic departure for him, and yet does a wonderful job of keeping things grounded in a scientific basis thanks to utilising practical effects wherever possible to bolster the CGI shots. Both Icarus and Icarus II are extremely functional in their design; essentially long, cylindrical missiles, the ships are designed to be as narrow and efficient as humanly possible. Every part of the interior has a purpose and the ships are protected from the Sun’s intense heat and deadly radiation by a massive set of solar panels that act as both shields and a power source for the ship. Naturally, being a science-fiction film, some creative liberties have been taken place regarding the ships’ realism; computer panels and monitors have pretty futuristic touchscreens and sport very sci-fi graphics on them but they’re probably not a million miles away from where technology would be at this point, the interiors are far larger and more accommodating than real-life space stations and shuttles, and feature a number of creature comforts for the crew. This includes the viewing room, where crewmen such as Searle and Pinbacker can view the Sun at varying degrees of intensity, a beautiful oxygen garden, where Corazon monitors the plants and natural habitat that sustains Icarus II’s oxygen and life support systems, and a “holodeck”, of sorts, where crewmen are advised to spend their downtime in order to stave off the mental toll of being adrift in the vast emptiness of space. Unlike a lot of sci-fi films, Sunshine’s space suits choose to be bulky and practical rather than sleek and sexy; comprised of a startling golden material and featuring bulbous helmets to reflect and filter out the harsh sunlight, the suits appear cumbersome but also realistic, and the frustration Capa feels when trying to manoeuvre in the suit towards the finale is one of the most relatable and agonising moments of the film thanks to how perfectly Murphy captures the character’s frustration at simply getting up after a trip.
I find it disappointing that some regard Sunshine unfavourably; the film is a bleak, atmospheric mediation on humanity’s last, desperate attempt at saving themselves from extinction and a visually impressive piece of cinema. I love the depiction of the Sun as this all-encompassing, awe-inspiring entity; the power of its mere presence has a profound effect on every character and it constantly looms in the background of the endless void as this necessary, but destructive, force (the Sun even appears to “roar” when seen in full view or overwhelming its victims). The crew’s mission is one that requires them to journey closer to Sol than anyone has ever been before and jump start it back to life with the largest nuclear payload ever devised but, while the Sun is dying and is the key to humanity’s survival, it is also extremely harmful to the ship and her crew. The slightest shift, the smallest miscalculation, is all it takes for the ship to be damaged and the oxygen garden to be destroyed, jeopardising the crew, the mission, and our entire world and, in their dying moments, many characters choose to have the Sun envelop them, as if sacrificing themselves to Pinbacker’s God. I’ve heard that many were put off by the suddenly tonal shift at the end of the film, and I guess I can understand that to a degree; Sunshine starts out as something of a run-of-the-mill, space-based drama that focuses on character interactions and conflicts, but escalates when the crew stumble upon Icarus I and Icarus II is damaged trying to intercept it.
Upon boarding Icarus I, the film takes a sharp turn towards a surreal, horrifying slasher, which appears to have put a lot of people off but I think actually adds to the tension and appeal of the film’s final act. At first, it seems as though the Icarus II computer itself (Chipo Chung) is sabotaging the mission; it constantly overrides Cassie’s manual control, leading to the destruction of the oxygen garden and Kaneda’s death, and then reports that they have too many crew members aboard the ship. However, Mace discovers that Pinbacker and his crew chose to abandon their mission due to the futility to challenging “God”, and Capa is horrified to find that Pinbacker is their mysterious extra crew member. A broken, fanatical man, Pinbacker is covered in severe burns and driven by murderous intent; constantly filmed using an unsettling and disturbing “shaky cam” style that makes him appear as little more than a monstrous entity (or an embodiment of the Sun itself), Pinbacker stalks Icarus II with an electric knife, directly killing Corazon and indirectly causing Mace to slowly and painfully freeze to death in an unsuccessful attempt to undo his sabotage. With no choice left, Capa is forced to disengage the stellar bomb from Icarus II and manually operate the device to complete the mission; he manages to fend off Pinbacker, despite suffering a deep cut, by ripping the scarred tissue from the former captain’s arm in a sickening scene and enjoys one moment of blissful serenity as he is caught between the blast of the bomb and the surface of the Sun before the star finally flares back to life and promises salvation for the remainder of humanity.
Sunshine may be one of the most intense and bleak science-fiction events I’ve ever experienced. I find myself continuously fascinated by the film’s visuals, soundtrack, and atmosphere; there’s just something about it that leaves an indelible impression upon me and I always find myself getting drawn into its grim depiction of humanity’s last chance at survival. While some characters are more one-dimensional and noticeably less memorable than others, I was impressed by all of the performances in the film, though Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans are the obvious standouts. Their differing personalities make for much of the dramatic conflicts between the characters, but it’s fascinating seeing the other characters be influenced by the increasingly dire nature of their mission, to say nothing of the Sun. The idea of the Sun slowly dying out and freezing the Earth is pretty terrifying, as is the nigh-impossibility of mounting a mission to restart it; it’s inspirational seeing a diverse collection of scientific minds and skills coming together to fulfil this mission, and their willingness to sacrifice themselves is as tragic as their many moments of conflict and the mistakes that threaten disaster for the mission. The late introduction of a murderous fanatic completely changes the tone and direction of the finale, but I think delivers some of the film’s most startling message: in the face of extinction, every person reacts differently, and Pinbacker completely gives himself over to the inevitability of humanity’s destruction and is as devoted to ensuring this as the Icarus II crew is to preventing it. An insane, homicidal maniac, Pinbacker is horrifically presented as being a monstrous force, as though the Sun itself (or whatever is eating it up) has taken physical form to destroy our last chance of survival, and ensures that the finale takes a dramatic and heart-wrenching turn as the crew is whittled down one by one and Capa is left to make the ultimate sacrifice. Overall, I find Sunshine to be as powerful and influential an experience as the Sun is presented in the film; I’m obviously no scientist but I see it as one of the most realistic and scientifically accurate depictions of a doomsday scenario and I never fail to be left an emotional wreck by the tragedy that befalls the characters. It’s maybe not for everyone, and possibly a little too slow and tonally confused at times, but I’ll never get sick of singing its praises and think that it’s definitely well worth your time if you’re in the mood for an intelligent and poignant sci-fi tale that’s laced with a little horror and a lot of introspective discussion on how much we take our most inexhaustible power source for granted.
Are you a fan of Sunshine? How do you feel it compares to other disaster films? Were you a fan of the concept or did you find the idea of the Sun dying a little unbelievable? Which of the characters was your favourite and what did you think to Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans’s performances? Did you like that Danny Boyle imbued the Sun with a form of malevolence and what did you think to the tonal shift towards a slasher horror for the final act? How important is scientific accuracy and realism to you in disaster films like this? How are you celebrating the end of the world today? Whatever you think about Sunshine, disaster films, and overblown predictions of the end of the world, sign up to drop your thoughts down below or leave a comment on my social media.