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In the name of entertainment, movies have taken plenty of liberties bending logic, doing away with a lot of smart stuff in order to make a premise work. If you’ve seen 2003’s The Core, you pretty much get the idea, this being one of the best (worst?) recent examples of science tossed out the window for the sake of escapism. And it wasn’t even any good.
There are many films though that have made great effort in being as scientifically sound as possible, attempting to give stories a better sense of authenticity, with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1969 and Christopher Nolan‘s 2014’s Interstellar being a few notable titles that earned acclaim for such attention to detail. Also, their just great movies.
With Danny Boyle‘s epic thriller Sunshine, science was the inspiration, and while the premise is theoretical, much of the film works to be as genuine as possible, even while some parts are left as implied workable engineering, such as the Earth-like gravity on the ship. Certainly, the science of it all isn’t the focus of the story, but it does layer the peripheral in some depth.
The story sees the Earth in peril as the Sun is dying, its cause not explained in the actual film but discussed on the commentary track by the movie’s science advisor Brian Cox as becoming infected by a Q-ball, a theoretical particle left over from the Big Bang. A ship called Icarus I was sent to deliver an enormous nuclear bomb but disappeared and has not been heard from for seven years. Icarus II is the planet’s last hope, a massive ship with a second bomb as big as Manhattan Island strapped on board. The plan: drop it into the star and hope the explosion triggers a second life.
With a crew of eight, they make their way to the Sun, and while completing a ‘slingshot’ around Mercury, discover the Icarus I adrift and the possiblity that it might have survivors. Naturally, a contentious debate breaks out about a rescue, as it would jeopardize their own mission, but the prospect of two bombs rather than one is compelling. And a great moment is born.
The ship is of course staffed by a variety of diverse characters, including the ship’s doctor Searle (Cliff Curtis), who had become obsessed with the Sun itself, spending hours in the observation deck watching it. The Captain is Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), who is influenced greatly by the engineer, Mace (Chris Evans), himself an extremely level-headed and mission-focused officer. Cassie (Rose Byrne) is the ship’s pilot, and Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) is the biologist who tends to the large eco-garden supplying the vessel with oxygen. Trey (Benedict Wong) is the navigator and Harvey (Troy Garity) is the communications officer.
Lastly is Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), the onboard physicist who operates the bomb device and is a bit of an outsider from the group, generally lingering in orbit around them, mostly in silence. Much to his dismay though, much rides on his decision-making, and when it comes to changing trajectory, the choice falls on him. His reaction to doing so is one of great frustration.
Trey makes some calculations about putting the Icarus II on path toward the other ship, but with the pressure of time and a host of other calculations, makes a mistake with keeping the city-sized heat reflecting shields protecting the ship aligned, and in so doing, damages a number of complex panels that won’t close, which would destroy the vessel and end the mission.
A plan is quickly formed to send two of the crew out onto the shield wearing specially-designed suits to manually repair the panels with Captain Kaneda and Capa taking the job. It’s perilous and untested, but there are no options. Suited up and making the trek to the exposed damage, the men risk their lives as Cassie attempts to angle the ship so they remain in shadow, since the intensity of the Sun magnified on the mirrored surface of the shield would vaporize them both.
The problem though is that during this angular maneuver–keeping Kaneda and Capa in the dark– it exposes the back end of the ship to the harsh rays of the Sun. It eventually causes a chain reaction of damage where it ignites the oxygen garden, filling the compartment with a fury of flames, which then triggers the ship’s onboard computer to take control of the ship away from Cassie and reset the shield in order to preserve the bomb and the rest of the crew. It means that Kaneda and Capa are going to fry.
Cassie and the others wrestle to gain control back, but the ever-pragmatic Mace holds the ship to its corrected course, confirming with the doomed captain that it’s the right choice. Kaneda, realizing he is done, demands Capa escape for the shield’s edge and save his own life as he struggles to repair the last panel. As all points converge on the realignment, the approaching rays of the inferno and the sealing deflector as the garden burns out, the captain spins toward the Sun to gaze into the glory of the swirling conflagration soon to consume him, in his ears the beckoning voice of Searle, begging to know what it’s like to feel the fingers of a star pierce his soul.
The moment itself is a sensational bit of filmmaking as it juggles a number of important catastrophes and personal character moments amid the chaos. Contrived to be sure, Kaneda’s sacrifice is nonetheless a sublime emotional and crucial pivot point in the story, cleanly separating the first introductory chapters that establish characters and narrative with conversation and exposition to the jarring shift in narrative that sees the film become an action-centered game of survival in space.
What’s important is how the event shapes the crew afterward, most especially Capa, who experiences a nightmare on the surface of the shield and in all respects should have gone up in a puff of ash like his captain, but was able to make some physical and mental choices that ensured he survived. That’s a theme that will come full circle as the story races to its horror-esque finale, but what we see is the first generation of his evolution, the introvert forced to make a group-effecting decision and then take the consequences of that choice on the chin.
The scene itself is a paralyzing moment and Boyle stages it with some spectacular shots that reveal both the extreme claustrophobia of the Sun suits and the immense vastness of the space in which they occupy, giving us a sense of the futility and the humanity of the endeavor. What lengths will we go to ensure others go on? It’s the desperation of it all, the mirrored events of the fire on board and the fire fast approaching that pinches these few pioneers in a selfless act of species survival that becomes so inspiring. Punctuated by John Murphy‘s highly-emotive and rousing score, we get a greater sense of the terrifying majesty the light that keeps our planet alive has, how insignificant we are in comparison and yet how empowered we can be in its shadow. The story itself is one where the giver of life is given life in return from those that owe it the most.
Sunshine is an ambitious film that loses its chance for more lasting metaphysical questions as it narrows down to a monster-in-the-dark thriller rather than something more existential, however, for much of its runtime, is an intelligent and well-made thriller that offers great performances and visual effects. And a sacrifice on the surface of a gigantic heat shield makes for a great cinematic moment.