Mashing genres has given us some of the best films ever made, but can be extremely fraught if done poorly. For every Blade Runner (science fiction/film noir), Assault on Precinct 13 (Western/thriller) or Scream (horror/comedy), there are countless clumsy and inconsistent messes that, in reaching for two disparate goals, achieve neither. Sunshine is by no means among the worst examples of this technique, but remains an intensely frustrating film. It seems to lack the courage to simply be a tense and thrilling tale of human perseverance and survival, instead tossing in a half-hearted, third act horror twist that falls completely flat.
Sunshine has a near-perfect premise for a humanity vs. nature narrative. When the Sun begins to die, a crew of Earth’s most attractive astronauts (and Benedict Wong) must travel there to deliver CPR, in the form of a fusion bomb the size of Manhattan. Our Sun is a curious contradiction; it is the source of all life in Earth, and yet even at a distance of millions of kilometres is capable of burning us. Like its miniature cousin fire, it can warm and enlighten or it can scorch and destroy. Because of this, even when it is fading, any approach risks total annihilation in its awesome intensity. The very thing that must be saved is also the greatest obstacle to the rescue mission. It is difficult to imagine a better example of nature’s power dwarfing that of humans, and thus a human villain in this story can only seem puny and irrelevant.
In spite of this solid foundation, Sunshine cannot be satisfied with allowing the absolute hostility of space and the terrible destructive power of a star to serve as the film’s only antagonists. Instead enter Pinbacker, captain of the previous mission to reboot the Sun, who sneaks aboard the Icarus II to vaguely menace the protagonists. His inclusion is baffling enough from a genre perspective. All at once the movie goes slasher, where the calls are coming from inside the spaceship. Compared to the quintessential filmic example of spaceboard serial killing, Alien, this lacks all tension, originality, or any real tension. His arrival serves to change the film from thriller to horror, but as horror it is underwhelming. Indeed, before Pinbacker enters the frame, the situation itself is amply terrifying. As an aside, Pinbacker also places a considerable strain on the suspension of disbelief. The audience must simply accept that he has survived for seven years, alone, on a derelict spacecraft, without starving to death or succumbing to virulent infection of the third-degree burns that cover his entire body. In a story otherwise relatively grounded in reality, he is an obvious absurdity.
The problem with the inclusion of a personified villain for the final act can be illustrated by comparison to another film that is all the more successful for staying the course. Despite much lower stakes, The Martian does not need a human evil to be an excellent thriller. It would have been very easy, perhaps even expected, to include some officious and budget-obsessed government type to voice the (arguably quite reasonable) point that spending huge quantities of taxpayer money to retrieve one man is a no-go, and to attempt to thwart the rescue of Mark Watney. This was avoided, and rightly so, because it would have changed the crux of the story itself. Instead of a celebration of human ingenuity and solidarity averting tragedy, the focus would have been shifted to a tired and lop-sided conflict between idealism and compassion, and the inhumanity of bureaucratic and miserliness. Likewise with Sunshine. By far the strongest part of the film is the first half, where the story is of a group of brave and determined, but flawed and fallible, heroes trying to survive the Sun in order to save it, and by extension the world. It becomes a battle against mindless madness. Perhaps the most charitable interpretation is that Pinbacker, in his Sun-worshipping psychosis, represents blind religious fervour standing in the way of science, but even this is hackneyed and poorly handled. What is clear is that the film suffers a catastrophic thematic jackknife after the encounter with Icarus I.
This is not the say that the film would be flawless if not for this glaring error of judgement, but other criticisms seem pettier by comparison. The decision to name the ship that carries humankind’s last hope for survival Icarus, a figure most famous for dying horribly when he flies to close to the Sun, is utterly perplexing. On a meta level it may be a rather clunky attempt at foreshadowing the ship’s future strife; in-universe it betrays a staggering failure of irony. Perhaps a better name, in keeping with the Ancient Greek theme, might have been Perseus, the hero who overcomes the monster’s terrible glare by means of his mirrored shield. Continuing with quibbles, for such a various cast, the characters are overwhelmingly of an American persuasion. The idea of a last-ditch global mission is somewhat undercut by having a crew where Americans outnumber those of other countries by five-to-three. Simply allowing the actors to speak in their natural accents would have more than doubled the representation of nations among the characters, lending our heroes some inspiring internationalism. Placing Hiroyuki Sanada’s Kaneda as captain is a promising start, but does not go far enough when we could have had America, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the United Kingdom all working together to save the day.
There are many reasons to describe Sunshine as flawed or frustrating, but to call it an outright failure seems too harsh. What the film does well it does very well. The visuals are very impressive, both in the physical set design and in the spectacular solar special effects. The first act cannily sets up many points to be paid off later, from the genius and indispensability of the oxygen garden, to Mace burning his hand in the mainframe’s coolant tank, to Searle’s quasi-religious sunbathing. Despite some convenient Hollywood gravity, the interior of Icarus II is functional and grounded, creating a recognisable geography in which the film’s events can unfold without ever becoming disorientating or inconsistent. The musical score is excellent. In particular the piece “Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor)” captures a perfect balance between solemn melancholy and the sliver of hope that remains, that even a slim chance is still a chance worth taking. It is for good reason that this song has seen some re-use, in Kick-Ass, The Lovely Bones, and The Walking Dead, among other works. Ultimately, to enjoy Sunshine requires a degree of forgiveness of its follies, but is not necessarily too difficult. Looking directly at it may be hazardous, but it is still very much worth seeing.
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Alex Garland
Starring Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne and Chris Evans