It’s 2057, the Sun is dying, and for the first time in the history of the species, humankind can fix it. Director Danny Boyle’s overlooked masterpiece “Sunshine” takes us on board the spaceship sent to do the job, and inside the heads of its crew.
There’s the psychologist who seems least equipped of all to handle the pressure, the rational captain who makes an early exit, and the cowardly communications officer, nervy and superfluous on a ship far out of range of any signal from Earth. The female crew members shake their heads as the alpha males wrestle for dominance, and brilliant physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) is dangerously fascinated by the sheer audacity of the mission.
Humanity in all its glory and destructiveness is represented. That our fate-courting species would name its Sun-bound last hope “Icarus” was perhaps inevitable, and captures the mix of hubris and noble striving propelling the crew forward.
Boyle’s special genius here is to combine a gritty plausibility (world-class physicist Dr. Brian Cox was scientific adviser to the production) with astonishing religious and spiritual undertones, thus framing the central question of the movie: should humanity, once it has acquired the cleverness to alter its fate, interfere with what may well be divine will?
You see, the Sun is not dying of old age. Instead, it is “stalled,” and by scraping together the last of Earth’s fissile material for a giant flying bomb (with a few humans riding shotgun), we have a chance of restarting it.
What happens to the crew, far from home, completely isolated, and with the fate of the species resting on their shoulders? There are at least three ways to explain the strange and disturbing journey on which Boyle takes us.
In the first, the scientific reading, “Sunshine” is a disaster epic, where the crew battles the fragility of our technology and our bodies pitted against the extremes of space. As Capa knows, once the “Icarus” starts its final descent into the solar mass, variables of velocity and time become impossible to calculate, and reality is smeared beyond the known laws of physics.
The second reading is religious. The crew is messing with a grand design and is but a set of scurrying ants under God’s giant magnifying glass. To fry is their inevitable fate. In this reading, the climax of the mission is the meeting of humankind with our maker. Physicist Capa experiences a moment of epiphany before evaporating into the cosmos from whence he came.
The final reading is the most intriguing: that what happens to the crew is at core psychological. Packed aboard the “Icarus” like sardines in a can, far from home and lurching from crisis to crisis, they lose their grip. The crew experience psychological breakdown (made worse by their discovering the broiled remnants of an earlier mission) and try to sabotage their own chances.
However you choose to read the movie, its best sequence achieves cinematic greatness. Trapped and bleeding, weighed down by a clunky spacesuit and needing to reach the controls of his flying bomb, physicist Capa summons his strength. John Murphy’s epic theme swells to a crescendo, Capa stumbles and falls and picks himself up. “We’re flying into the surface of the Sun” he tells his shell-shocked comrade, moments before they are obliterated by waves of scorching light.
Stephen Benedict Dyson is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Humanities House Learning Community at the University of Connecticut. Follow him on twitter @sbdyson