Why ‘Sunshine’ is a Misunderstood Masterpiece

A misguided third act drove critics to dismiss Danny Boyle’s 2007 Sci-fi marvel, but it ought to be considered a classic.

Quentin Hoffman
Jan 13, 2017 · 13 min read
‘Sunshine’ (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Schronicles the Icarus II and its crew’s mission to reignite a dying sun (which, by the way, is a plausible premise) with an enormous stellar bomb strapped to the front of the ship. After crossing Mercury, they happen upon the Icarus I- the lost ship from Earth’s initial attempt to save the fading star.

This discovery presents the crew with a dilemma:

Should they continue their present course knowing their bomb might not succeed, or divert to man the second ship’s bomb and get two chances?

After some verbal clashes and deep calculations, the crew opts to gamble, setting their sights on Icarus I. This decision leads to unforeseeable consequences which threaten to compromise the entire mission — It’s a nail-biter and does a fantastic job of immersing the viewer into the crew’s fears and conflicting ideals.

The turning point, however, is when the captain of the Icarus I boards the Icarus II. Prolonged isolation and exposure to the sun has left him, Pinbacker, skinless and insane. The crazed, but crafty lunatic proceeds to sabotage the ship, killing each remaining crewmember in his way. Why? So the human race is burned to ashes. Although this sequence is a radical departure in tone and style from the previous two thirds of the film, I can’t believe that fans of the genre have ridiculed this movie and so many can overlook ’s many exceptional elements.

The first time I saw I was captivated by its intriguing premise, visceral presentation, and its unyielding suspense. I didn’t want it to end. All I could think about the next day was what it would be like to be a professional entrusted with saving the entire planet. And I am not the first person to see the good in . Quentin Tarantino once reviewed the film and did a great job highlighting its strengths as well as pinpointing why it falls short for so many. Though everything Tarantino said was valid, what I hold onto most is his ability to regard the movie in high esteem in spite of a so-called “creative nosedive.”

While I will concede that this film perhaps fails to tie the competing genres together, I think that it is downright ludicrous that it always seems to carry an asterisk when mentioned in sci-fi discussions. The following breakdown highlights reasons why I believe is a misunderstood masterpiece and why it should be given a well-deserved spot among classic sci-fi.

‘Sunshine’ provides an audiovisual feast

Can you remember the noise a blaster makes? Of course you can! Now, try to remember what a laser gun sounds like in the new series. Any at all. Could you do it? Probably not. Or, if you did, you probably just imagined a general sounding one. Well, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

is so memorable in part because of its very distinct sound effects. Visuals frame a fictional world, but audio is what truly cements it. This is why good sound design can make for an effective scene, but great sound design creates a universe that sticks with an audience after the fact- hence why outclasses much of its genre competition.

This is critical to mention because in spite of being a more dialogue-driven movie, has unbelievable sound production. Whether it is the sun burning, the ship’s engine, or the ambiance of the ship’s interior, I felt like I was there. I hadn’t seen this film in over two years before rewatching for this write up and remembered the sound of the ship’s radio transmitter like I’d seen it the day prior — THAT is great sound design.

Further along the auditory front, has to have one of the most underrated soundtracks in the last 20 years of film. John Murphy’s Adagio in D Minor is an amazing song that has been used in a ton of subsequent movie trailers and documentaries. The rest of the soundtrack sports remarkable contributions from Underworld and tense ambient melodies that would make Trent Reznor proud.

Not only does provide a wealth of memorable sounds to the viewer, but it also thrives visually. From a pure technical standpoint, is outclassed by some bigger budget films like and But where revels in flowing cinematography with unparalleled immersion, and in its vivid space and planetary depictions, shows a masterful command of taking familiar visual language and bending it in a unique way.

The introduction (which has one of the most clever transitions ever) roped me in because it was such great pure cinema. It features a slow, dramatic pan into the sun as Cillian Murphy sets the stage. As the sun keeps growing, it passes us and we realize that we have actually been watching the refractory shield of the Icarus II the whole time. Further, the palette in this film is very effective because of its contrasts. The evocative bright yellow sun shots are massive and often juxtaposed with a dark and claustrophobic ship interior.

And let’s not forget about the incredible costume design…Have you ever seen a cooler, more unique spacesuit?

There is unrelenting suspense

Between Alex Garland’s masterful script and Danny Boyle’s magnificent worldbuilding, establishes a strong driving plot with fully realized characters. The premise alone is enough to have a viewer invested in the mission, but this film takes it a layer deeper by growing into an introspective experience. When the Icarus II set out, it was a straightforward mission, but each new development forces the viewer to ask:

“What would I do if I had to pick between two unclear options if the wrong one meant the eradication of mankind?”

These characters are some of humanity’s finest scientists, but they are in a situation that requires more than just science and reasoning- they must face a broader spectrum of pure reason and humanism. While it would seem that logic should always win out in problem solving and advanced space travel, Garland cleverly blurs the line by tying in philosophical quandaries and punishing “right” logical decisions with human error, therefore undermining the crew’s unerring rationalization with imperfect human flaws.

And all the while, every person on board must contend with system malfunctions and are in danger of being burnt alive, frozen, lost in space, running out of oxygen, or even being murdered. Yikes.

The characters form an amazing religious allegory

Like all great sci-fi, is really just a metaphor to discuss a bigger idea about humanity. As such, this movie is less about the space travel and more about faith vs. science. Where every decision hits tension between logic and emotion, each character falls somewhere on a spectrum between spiritual and atheist.

Early on, Searle, the ship’s psychologist, is seen spending prolonged sessions on the observatory deck gazing at the sun. Why? It is daunting, yet it evokes an unparalleled sense of awe. The crew roll their eyes at him for this, but this practice brings him great peace. This is quite a contrast to other major characters who purport to be fine, but are all suffering from major anxiety or even mental instability from the journey.

Cassie and Capa, the ship’s pilot and physicist, are calm on the surface, but experience traumatic nightmares about falling into the sun. Mace, the most logical and principled member of the crew, has multiple psychological breakdowns, attacking Capa whenever he feels slighted. Harvey gets scared enough to try and save himself at the expense of the crew. Trey makes one miscalculation adjusting the ships’ shields before he has to be put on sedatives as a suicide risk, so there is no question that he was broken by the mission.

On the other hand, not all the members fall into this mold.

Commander Kaneda is intrigued by Searle’s observatory visits and gazes at the sun. Kaneda is shown to be a stoic, pragmatic individual, never appearing daunted by the weight of the mission or danger of the sun. He proves his resolve when he sacrifices himself fixing the ship’s external shields, allowing Capa to escape.

Corazon is interesting since she’s a logical individual, but her love for nature seems to be her religion, after all, in spite of witnessing several of her comrades dying, she seems most devastated when the garden is destroyed.

These characters all represent different ideologies and are motivated by differing degrees of spirituality and logic.

Searle, Kaneda, and Corazon all represent characters of faith. Searle is awed by it, Kaneda is inspired by it, and Corazon worships the life she can spread. They all happen to die surrounding their faith too. Kaneda faces the sun, knowing he is dying for what he believes in. Searle sacrifices himself to save three other crew members and sits in the unprotected observation deck of the Icarus I knowing it will burn him up the second Icarus II departs. Corazon dies during a state of euphoria having found a plant that survived in a pile of rubble outside where the garden used to be.

Mace, Trey, and Harvey are all represent atheists. Mace is the most competent crew member, but holds grudges and throws anyone under the bus if it compromises the mission. Trey lives and dies by his calculations. Harvey is a self-serving man whose temperament is only ever a hindrance to the crew. Mace dies freezing to death to repair the Icarus II’s coolant, without which the ship would have burnt up. Trey is incapacitated from his guilt before his sudden death. Harvey is simply unlucky because he is forced to go through space without a suit to get back to the Icarus II and misses docking bay, leaving him to freeze in dead space.

All of this is to say that these characters all had opportunities to serve a greater purpose and some fell short. Where the spiritual and atheist characters depart is that the atheists were more guided by their personal choices and feelings.

Mace, while flawed, provides invaluable leadership and makes a noble, selfless sacrifice. Trey is put on suicide watch after his mistake cost Kaneda his life… was his death more beneficial for the crew or might he have helped them in new ways? Harvey’s departure was bleak, but he cared more about his own self-preservation over the mission.

Then we have Cassie and Capa. They are the only members of the Icarus II to reach the sun and they might best be classified as “moderates.” They aren’t outright spiritual, but they both have character-defining moments which are at odds with the rational scope of the mission.

Cassie makes calculated decisions as the pilot, but views morality as more important than logic. When Mace demands a vote on whether or not to kill Trey, she is the only dissenter.

Capa is an interesting contrast because he is the only character who really has any kind of an arc. He is shown to be motivated by unflinching reason throughout the film but at the very end, his instincts seem to have changed. Capa has recurring nightmares of falling into the sun and though he does not spend significant time at the observatory, he goes into space on multiple occasions, getting closer to the sun each time. Once he succeeds in detonating the payload, however, instead of being eviscerated, the fiery, sun-like explosion freezes in midair and Capa stops cowering for his life. He smiles and embraces the light having found a sense of greater peace.

Of course, there is one more character to mention in this allegory…

The third act

The infamous slasher twist introduces Pinbacker, who we’ve already seen through the captain logs from Icarus I. While a contentious character to sure, he dies tie into Garland’s faith vs science discussion. Here, Pinbacker represents the toxic, fanatical part of the religious spectrum and it is the catalyst for what I believe to be a strong ending.

While I am a huge fan of this film, I have to agree that the third act twist was misguided. I believe that Garland was really looking to explore angles of human flaws as much as possible, but this direction wasn’t the best way to do it. That being said, I’m not sure whether gets as big a budget for a slow sci-fi if the studios didn’t see the potential of tapping into the horror fan demographic.

An interesting fan theory (alright, I made this up) gives a bit more weight to Pinbacker’s appearance in the third act: Imagine that there is no Pinbacker and Capa has gone crazy.

Let’s posit that Capa has become unstable from the psychological strain of the mission, the constant nightmares, almost getting immolated by the sun, and the rising carbon dioxide levels are making him obsessed with the objective to the point of madness. Mace had unstable moments even before the air shortage and we saw what happened to Pinbacker based on his log on the Icarus I. Suddenly, the uncharacteristic plot shift and change in visual language makes sense because it is from Capa’s perspective. It has gone from a sci-fi ensemble narrative to an unreliable narrator’s momentary descent into insanity.

Here’s how it goes down:

The computer tells Capa (and oddly no one else aboard) that there are too many people consuming oxygen to make it to the sun even after Trey was found dead. This is the same computer that said it was fine to lose the comm towers, but did not account for the consequences of them being destroyed, which is what set the garden on fire and put the entire mission into jeopardy. It is fallible, just like human logic. If Capa believed that another had to die for the payload to reach the sun, he would do it without hesitation. After all, he said so in the prior scene:

So how does this explain how Capa was locked in the docking chamber while this all went down?

Easy. Capa was fine letting Mace kill Trey, but Capa is not a violent guy. Perhaps the notion of killing someone had more weight than Capa thought and he had to create “Pinbacker” to rationalize it to himself. Let’s think about how Boyle chose to not show Pinbacker in the same shot as other characters unless he was obscured. It could have been a stylistic choice, but perhaps there is a subliminal message here. All throughout Capa’s exchanges with Mace, he is talking about the ship, but not the safety of individual crew members.

At this point, Capa is far gone. He stabs Corazon, who is too distracted to notice him, then goes straight to the coolant tanks. Mace has attacked Capa twice now, overpowering him each time, so Capa disrupts the mainframe knowing that no one person could fix it without freezing to death. Capa lures Mace under the pretense that it was all Pinbacker, but at that point, it didn’t matter who did it, because Mace knew if it wasn’t fixed right away they would all burn up. As Mace saves the day, Capa continues his rampage, even going after Cassie, but she eludes him. It is Mace’s dying words to Capa that reach him and remind him of his mission.

After that, Capa takes an epic leap to escape with the payload… but notice that when he encounters Cassie, her terrified expression does not warm in the slightest. Before they can say anything meaningful, the payload has begun to take hits from Sun flares, so Capa goes on to complete his mission.

Alright, now that we’ve left the rabbit hole, you can remove your tinfoil hat and take a breather.

You can absolutely poke holes in this theory and I am certain it is not what Boyle and Garland intended, but it works better for me than the literal plot. From a structural standpoint, there is no question that Pinbacker completes Garland’s allegory and that they set up for him to become an antagonist, but his presence really undermines the aesthetic for me and, in my opinion, might have worked had the elements of this slasher sequence played out as another Capa nightmare. Perhaps he could have woken up just in time to make the ship jump, but only after the rest of the crew had suffocated.

But that’s not what happened.

Let’s try to give some credit to the working pieces here. did build off of its own ideas, such as:

  1. Even the most logical humans can be overcome with emotional faults.
  2. The inherent good of mankind and our capacity towards reason can prevail over our violent, selfish nature.
  3. Space can make you go nuts.

… but I digress.

Movies don’t need great endings to be classics

‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ (EMI Films)

Let’s not forget that there are many amazing movies with underwhelming endings. is a great sci-fi film with many thought-provoking ideas, but after the entire plot is resolved, the ending tries to be a feelgood Spielbergian resolution which is lackluster and doesn’t really fit with the whole narrative. lulls quite a bit in the third act and there is no inherent tension outside of characterization when the main character dies in the opening scene. has some iconic sequences, but it also is full of boring stretches. After some uneven side quests throughout the second act, the narrative culminates in what looks to be a mighty climax: King Arthur assembles a massive army of soldiers to siege a castle and take the Holy Grail, but before they can charge, they all get rounded up by modern police officers because it turns out they are all just crazy.

I think if we can cut those movies some slack, there’s a place for as a classic too.

Movie Musing

Exploring the world of film and what film reveals about our…

Movie Musing

Exploring the world of film and what film reveals about our world.

Quentin Hoffman

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Co-founder of Movie Musing. A great story should be as interesting as it is informative. @QuentinTHoffman https://moviemusing.com/

Movie Musing

Exploring the world of film and what film reveals about our world.