Classic Science Fiction Film Review: Sunshine by Danny Boyle

“What a great starting point: eight astronauts strapped to the back of this massive bomb, behind a shield, flying towards the sun. Fantastic! I’d go and watch that!” – Danny Boyle

We love our resident film reviewer, Ren Zelen! Ren was kind enough to share her perspectives on Danny Boyle’s under-the-radar film, Sunshine. I must confess that I’ve never seen Sunshine, but after reading Ren’s review, I feel compelled to watch. Enjoy!

THE HEART OF LIGHTNESS: Danny Boyle’s sci-fi classic ‘SUNSHINE’ RE-viewed

A blazing, golden sun slowly fills the screen and we are compelled to regard its terrible, encompassing beauty. This image begins Danny Boyle’s sci-fi movie Sunshine. It’s not the most celebrated, or the most popular, or the most written about movie in my Sci-fi collection, but something keeps drawing me back to re-watch it, and every time I do, I’m more convinced that it is one of Boyle’s most underrated films.


Looking back through some erstwhile reviews, it seems I’m not the only one who thinks so – it was described as the director’s “most misunderstood and underrated film” by influential critic Mark Kermode in his BBC blog. Critically it received acclaim, yet on cinema release, it barely made a dent in the cinema-going public’s cultural psyche, at least in comparison with his much lauded movies Trainspotting or Slumdog Millionaire. Let’s not forget that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner wasn’t a hit on first release either, though any self-respecting sci-fi geek would not deny it is now seen as a milestone in movie history. Not that I think that Sunshine is destined for the same kind of impact, mainly because it is a very different kind of film – more pensive, more subtly philosophical, more idiosyncratic. It blurs the boundaries between science and spirituality and addresses the idea of what might happen to a mind when faced with the most powerful and terrifying forces in our solar system. The sun here represents the giver of life but also is a receptacle for mysterious, implacable knowledge.

The movie begins in a pragmatic tone – a group of scientists are trying to save the Earth which is trapped in a solar winter, caused by the dimming of the light from the Sun. Their ship, called the Icarus 2, carries a bomb which they must launch in hopes of reigniting the failing star. Professor Brian Cox was brought in to advise on the (rather dubious) scientific aspects of the film and to spend time with Cillian Murphy who played the fictional physicist, Capa (Murphy reportedly incorporated some of Professor Cox’s mannerisms into the character). Professor Cox commented, “Just for once there’s a film where the physicist looks like Cillian Murphy rather than some old man. That’s a good thing!”

The film initially moves with a quiet slowness which reflects the pace and silence of the journey and the fragile and claustrophobic mentality of the eight people who have been trapped together in a ship in the depths of space for sixteen months. Their mission has been calculated and assessed to the nth degree in order to allow them to deliver their ‘payload’ and return to earth. As they approach their launching destination for the bomb, they begin to receive a beacon signal from the first ship, the Icarus 1, which disappeared on its mission seven years ago and a now appears to be stranded in close proximity to the sun. A tough decision has to be made. Do they deviate from their course, jeopardising all their careful mission and life-support calculations, in order to pick up the bomb ‘payload’ from the first ship, which would give them another chance in case their launch is ineffective, or do they stick to their route? The decision falls to Capa, the physicist. He runs a simulation to better inform his decision, but as the simulated bomb enters the sun, the computer states that the variables are ‘infinite’. Capa then turns to captain Kanada and states: “The velocity of the payload will be so great, space and time will become smeared together. Everything will distort, everything will become unquantifiable.”  I think this statement becomes the key to understanding the events that take place later in the movie.

Meanwhile, chance and human error disrupt their carefully laid plans, and the events that the crew might have initially seen as fortunate and redemptive soon become tinged with a growing sense of unease. Bad luck seems to follow as the crew begins to unravel, and the increasing proximity of the sun and its relentless glare seems to instill an underlying disorientation and hysteria. John Murphy’s euphoric soundtrack also helps to bring out both the beauty and horror of the universe, and the insignificance of man’s place in it. The serene, meditative tone established by Boyle also forms a striking contrast to the increasingly dominant presence of the fiery sun.

The aspect of the movie that seems to bother most viewers is the troubling third act – “the film suddenly goes a bit Event Horizon,” conceded one review, referring to the advent of Mark Strong’s disfigured Pinbacker, captain of the failed Icarus 1 mission that disappeared seven years previously. Assumed to be dead along with the rest of his crew, he arrives clandestinely on the Icarus 2 vessel and begins murdering the occupants, intent on sabotaging their mission. Many viewers were disturbed by this change of tone, which they considered as a betrayal of the philosophical elements and which suddenly turned the movie into a ‘monster on the loose’ slasher film, introducing aspects of the paranormal.

In an interview with Lumino Magazine, Danny Boyle addressed the issue, saying: “Some people find that Pinbacker breaks the realism too much. Which is fair enough, but I always love taking a huge risk in films where you risk everything by doing something that breaks the pattern…So that was always the plan, to take you and see how far we could stretch realism. Push it as hard as we could.”

Pinbacker may be murderous, but he is not so simple a monster. For a start, it’s damn hard to see him. He blurrs and flickers and is never quite in focus. There are glimpses which hint at disfigurement and mutilation – a body burned almost out of recognition by prolonged exposure to the sun (effects created by DOP). Why is he so hard to focus on? Remembering Capa’s words at the simulation, “Everything will distort, everything will become unquantifiable” it appears that this has certainly happened with Pinbacker (at least symbolically). It suggests he has tried to ‘commune’ with the sun for so long that his body and space-time around it have become distorted. His mind has also become distorted and deranged.

Pinbacker’s madness is a symptom of the psychological effort of coming to terms with the importance of the mission, which in his mind, crumbles to insignificance when faced with the enormity of space and the sun itself. He feels his insignificance in the face of the universe – we came from stardust and we shall return to the same. He becomes fanatical in his determination to let the universe take its natural course, even if it means the absolute destruction of mankind. For Pinbacker, only ‘God’ can fill the unbearable void that is space and palliate the feeling that man is meaninglessness. For him, the sun is the messenger of God, whereas for Capa it is an outward expression of the payload, the scientific means by which he can deliver man’s salvation (God helps those who helps themselves).

There are many references to the divine and the spiritual, most obviously in Pinbacker’s fundamentalist language, but also obliquely in imagery and statements made by others, serving to imply that we are imperfect creatures constantly reaching out to the divine – represented here by the sun, the giver of life. Ultimately it is the scientist Capa who achieves a kind of divinity, becoming one with the sun, but only by self-sacrifice, lifting himself above his cynicism to finally see the miracle inside nature that science strives to deconstruct and emulate. What Capa sees at the end of the movie affects him beyond the rational.

Pinbacker does not see, because he has lost all hope. Overwhelmed, he has lost all desire for intervention and all desire to save humanity. He embraces the catastrophe – embraces the fading sun. Even as the crew of the Icarus 2 sacrifice themselves in order to reignite the sun and save Earth, Pinbacker is ruthless in his mission to let the sun fade, forgetting that science itself can engender a form of spirituality. As we strive to understand the secrets of the universe, as we explore, we evolve, and that is our purpose.

So, we find an affecting human story of self-sacrifice emerging from Alex Garland’s clinical script. What is one man’s life against that of all mankind? This scenario was made credible by an impressive array of international actors including Cillian Murphy, Mark Strong, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Hiroyuki Sanada, Troy Garity (son of Jane Fonda) Benedict Wong and Chris Evans, who, out of superhero costume, finally gets the chance to show his acting chops.

Impressive camerawork allows us to inhabit the space of the vessel’s incumbents – physically and emotionally – with numerous dazzling shots of the space craft contrasted against the blazing surface of the sun and also from the perspective of the astronauts from inside their slitted space helmets. But I loved Sunshine for its radical message that humans will strive to do something about catastrophe, and that our deadliest weapons could be used in the service of preservation rather than destruction. A rehabilitation of the more sinister aspects of science?

Boyle had already turned down the opportunity of directing the fourth of the Alien franchise, and on Sunshine worked with a modest budget of just $20 million, but the visual quality of the movie outstrips many more expensive films. Should we lambaste or celebrate him for taking such a creative risk? What certainly didn’t help was the marketing of the movie, which sought to entice viewers by playing up the ‘slasher film’ qualities of Pinbacker’s involvement. No wonder audiences were confused. The film deserved better. Its high concept premise doesn’t weigh it down – and if Boyle takes some unusual turns, it doesn’t stop it from being an absorbing, tense and thought-provoking sci-fi.

Have you seen Sunshine? Please share your comments below.

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Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2013 All rights reserved.

About Reviewer, Ren Zelen
REN ZELEN describes herself as “a writer, academic editor, reviewer, pop culture junkie, movie buff, rock music enthusiast, science nerd and Sandra Bullock lookalike”. Her fiction and past reviews can be found on her own website: Lethal Lexicon.

Her post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel ‘The HATHOR DIARIES’ is available from Amazon in both the UK and USA.

Her book/film/TV reviews can be found on various sites on the web. Information and contact on twitter.

  • Little Red / Andrea

    I really enjoyed the first half of Sunshine, but I had a similar experience to many other viewers that it became off-putting when it turned into a slasher movie. I only saw it the one time, so I’m certain I missed much of the symbolism.

    also, I’m surprised to see it being called a “classic”.

    • http://www.twistedscifi.com/ Blase Ciabaton

      Thanks much for your comment ‘Little Red’-we’re real fans of your site! You’ve probably noticed we have a link to it in our sidebar.

      Guess we all have different opinions on what’s considered a ‘classic,’ but fair point on your part. Also appreciate you weighing in on the 2nd half of the movie-seems like you’re not alone in your opinion about that. Please stop back again!