Way back in 1981, the Sean Connery/"High Noon in Space" sci-fi movie Outland was advertised with the memorable tag-line: "Even in Space, the Ultimate Enemy is Man." A deliberate homage to classic outer space films from Solaris (1972) and Dark Star (1975) to Alien (1979) and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007) could have re-purposed the same slogan.
Because if you remove all the technical bells and whistles, the harrowing Sunshine concerns not the final frontier, but the yin-and-yang of the human psyche; the best and worst angels of our nature.
Just how far would you be willing to go to save the human race? To the surface of Sun?
And where would that journey take you, spiritually-speaking? Would it lead you to an epiphany about yourself, or contrarily, and like a character in the film named Pinbacker, to the very heart of darkness itself?To put it another way, would you curse the blackness and loneliness of space, or share in the glowing illumination and belonging of a radiant star...even if you knew such belonging was short-lived?
Set in the year 2057, Sunshine is the tale of Icarus 2, a massive spaceship bound for our Sun, and carrying eight fragile human beings aboard her. The international crew has been tasked with dropping a vast stellar bomb into the Sun in hopes of re-igniting the dying star before it fades out and leaves Earth a frozen, destroyed world. The entire human race hangs in the balance.
En route to the sun, however, as the ship enters a communications "dead zone," the crew of Icarus 2 intercepts a mysterious signal. The signal originates near Mercury, from Icarus 1, the first ship that attempted this mission some seven years earlier...but disappeared without a trace. It too carries a massive stellar bomb, and thus offers the crew of Icarus 2 twice the possibility of success on their critical mission. Though some crew members disagree with the decision, the captain of Icarus 2, Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) orders a course adjustment on the recommendation of ship's physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy). Their mission: to secure a second payload.
What follows this fateful decision is a surprising and terrifying glimpse of human psychology, of man both at his remarkable best and at his absolute worst. Catastrophic human errors jeopardize the mission and yet egregious instances of human heroism - and selflessness -- bring the mission back from the precipice over and over.
In one torturous, edge-of-your seat sequence, three crew members traverse a gap in space (between airlocks) with only one space suit between them. In another tense scene, one committed astronaut, Mace (Chris Evans) dives headlong into freezing liquid to re-start a computer mainframe. When he can't do the job at first, he goes back into the coolant again. And when he still doesn't finish, he goes back in a third time...
On the opposite side of the equation is a man called Pinbacker who believes that if humanity dies, he will be "alone" with God. He believes, I guess, that there will be some sense of intimacy there, in that twisted relationship. That's the mission he's assumed, and it involves murder, sabotage, and chaos. Pinbacker is consumed with self, while the survivors on Icarus 2 are consumed with saving the planet...and the species. These are two diametrically opposed viewpoints, and yet both are human.
The battle between these opposing aspects of the human psyche leads right to the surface of the Sun itself...and beyond, into a beautiful, even transcendent metaphysical climax. And Boyle doesn't spare viewers any comforts on the trip. Characters you grow to love make agonizing sacrifices, face grotesque and gory deaths, and broach a suicide mission with the dignity we all hope we would evidence if, by chance (or bad luck...), we found ourselves in their shoes.
In Sunshine, Danny Boyle has crafted an intimate, haunting, and utterly believable space movie, one that is never cheesy, trite, or less than totally involving (not to mention anxiety-provoking). And while you're watching be certain not to take your eyes off the screen even for a second, especially during one unsettling scene that creepily employs nearly subliminal (and highly-disturbing...) flash cuts.
Boyle revived and re-energized the zombie genre with 28 Days Later (2002), and Sunshine is strong enough that it should have also re-ignited the cerebral outer space film. An aficionado of the genre will recognize and appreciate many of Boyle's tributes to genre greats of yesteryear too.
The film's villain, Pinbacker, is named after Dark Star's Sgt. Pinback (Dan O'Bannon), and even the Icarus's mission -- deploying a destructive device: a bomb -- reflects that nihilist John Carpenter classic. Boyle's slow, majestic pans across empty and isolating high-tech ship corridors deliberaately evoke memories of the Nostromo and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). And the talking computer Icarus may be the Nostromo's "Mother" or 2001's HAL. Even the steadfast focus on human psychology reminds one of Solaris (original or remake, take your choice).
Boyle utilizes these references and homages not as gimmicks or nudges to appreciative fans, but in the very manner Quentin Tarantino might: re-directing them for his own unique story, and making certain that they carry significance for viewers beyond their original context.
For instance, any time a talking Computer appears in a science fiction film, we expect certain...things to happen. HAL, Proteus (Demon Seed) and Mother all turned out to be treacherous "beings," after all. Boyle plays with that anticipation in a unique way, particularly in a scene that involves the captain of the ship and Capa embarking on a dangerous space walk. As for the Ridley-Scott-esque pans, these carefully-orchestrated shots serve to remind viewers of a few important things. First, of the technological nature of the shelter that houses this group of human beings; and secondly that -- in this case -- the haunted house in space is not one invaded by a nightmarish "outside force," a malevolent extra-terrestrial, but rather a monster direct from the human id; a flawed "man" not a "perfect" alien.
Sunshine is also highly reminiscent of the literary works of Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), which are considered, to varying degrees, inspiration for films as diverse as Alien and Apocalypse Now (1979). As is the case in Conrad's works, Sunshine offers a tangible sense of place (the Icarus 2 could be the Nostromo or the Narcissus of Conrad's travels), and characters' fates are played out in a remote location (stellar orbit...) far from the lights of modern civilization.
Another Conrad-ian theme, the Evil "Outside" creating an Evil "Inside" also finds purposeful life in the Boyle film. Pinbacker goes insane because of the "loneliness" of black space, and also, perhaps, because of his religious upbringing. Those evils "outside" Pinbacker grow an evil seed within him; one that germinates on the long voyage to the Sun.
Long story short: Sunshine is a remarkable outer space movie because is about us, not clones, robots or monsters. When Man finally reaches the stars, he may have to reckon with the clones, the robots and the monsters of space opera too, but one thing is for certain: he will certainly have to reckon with his own psychology first.
This idea is perhaps my favorite of all "outer space" conceits, and evident in Space:1999 (1975), and Prometheus (2012) to name just two other productions. In exploring this facet of the human experience, Boyle's film is about the darkness and the sunshine to be found there too.