Spiritual themes run throughout the work of Danny Boyle, from the rise of greed in Shallow Grave to the transcendent states in Trainspotting, “what is written” in Slumdog Millionaire and the delirium of 127 Hours. In my previous post, I discussed the themes of salvation and the soul in 28 Days Later…, Boyle’s visceral and frightening non-zombie zombie film. Five years later, Boyle experimented with science fiction in Sunshine, which works as an interesting counterpoint to 28 Days Later…. The spirituality of Boyle’s work is especially apparent in Sunshine, and while parts of the film do not work as well as others, it remains a fascinating psychological and philosophical journey.
Whereas 28 Days Later… quickly breaks into a mad, frenzied dash, Sunshine has a more sedate opening act, the voiceover of Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy, again) easing us into the steady movement through space. The voiceover provides simple and necessary exposition, informing the viewer that the sun is dying so the vessel Icarus II has been sent to reignite the star with a gigantic bomb. We also learn that the first mission, Icarus I, failed and, as the film progresses, this failure and its ramifications will form both the narrative and spiritual conflicts of Sunshine.
Much of Sunshine resembles other space travel science fiction: the living quarters of the Icarus II and the banter between the crew are reminiscent of Alien; the film’s spiritual concerns are similar to Solaris, while the isolation and alienation, as well as the gardens, recall Silent Running. I greatly admire Sunshine’s willingness to engage with serious themes of spirituality and confrontations with death, life, God and science. When science fiction does this, like in other recent films such as Inception, Avatar and Prometheus, it is at its most satisfying. Inevitably, “serious” sci-fi echoes 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there are moments in Sunshine that echo Stanley Kubrick’s opus. One of 2001’s many memorable scenes is when astronaut Dave Bowman moves through a stargate, described by some as “the ultimate trip”. Sunshine features similar moments when the screen is filled with light, a golden expanse that is both beautiful and terrible. The general aesthetic of films set in space is to emphasise the void of blackness, but Boyle uses light in Sunshine to extraordinary effect, bathing the Icarus II and the performers in golden radiance.
The characters’ entrancement (see what I did there?) is mirrored by the viewer’s envelopment, as the film transports us into its world through its “retina-scorching” visuals. For me, the best science fiction is that which transports you, and Sunshine certainly does that. A key element of this transportation is the film’s spiritual concerns, closely tied to the film’s use of light. The first scene after the opening voiceover presents Searle (Clifford Curtis) viewing the sun at what appears to be intense brightness, yet it is only 3% intensity, and much of Sunshine is almost unbearably bright. Searle describes his experience as something transcendent and profound. This element of the mission through space remains prominent throughout, an encounter with something immensely powerful and magnificent. Salvation for the Earth is the goal of the astronauts, but beyond this, each of them seek spiritual salvation or enlightenment in different and often misguided ways. Mace (Chris Evans) is the most cynical of the crew, committed only to completing the mission, which he does not live to see. Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) focuses upon life through the ship’s garden, which is both a living environment and the means to life for the crew, but the garden is destroyed by fire and she dies among its ashes. Cassie (Rose Byrne) is the heart of the crew and the film, caring for everyone as much as she can, and there are suggestions of a (nascent) romance between her and Capa. Of course, it comes to nothing and her compassion and sympathy is overridden, largely by Mace. Harvey (Troy Garity) and Trey (Benedict Wong) are more minor, but it is interesting that after his mistake endangers them all, Trey seeks redemption in suicide. But the most interesting quests for salvation are those who seek it in light.
For Searle and, to a lesser extent, Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), salvation/enlightenment is achieved by “touching” the Sun. Searle demonstrates this conceit through his fascination with seeing as much light as he can. When Kaneda sacrifices himself to the Sun’s rays for the good of the mission, he turns towards the approaching wall of searing heat that will destroy him. At the moment of his death, Kaneda is calm, humble and seemingly embracing the great power that consumes him. Searle is intensely curious, repeatedly asking Kaneda over the radio “What do you see?” What Kaneda sees is his death, his eternal darkness, in the midst of light. What can you see when the retinas are overloaded by light? Too much light is ultimately blindness, while in the midst of darkness one heads for light. This paradox again reflects the film’s spiritual journey, a journey simultaneously into light and darkness.
The major contrast, of course, is between Capa and Pinbacker (Mark Strong), captain of Icacus I who went mad and killed his crew. Capa describes the ignition of the bomb, and by implication the Sun as a whole, as beautiful; Pinbacker has embraced death as he sees the Sun as expressive of God’s majesty, before which humanity should die. Pinbacker believes he has found salvation in death, Capa does so as well, but his death is life for Earth. Sunshine’s final explosion of light, and Capa’s almost ecstatic face as the reaction takes place, confirms his prediction that it will be “beautiful”. Indeed, Capa seems to achieve the transcendence that Searle pursued and that Pinbacker possibly found, but without the murderous madness. In its ultimate embrace of death as a transcendent experience, Sunshine resembles another film that came out the previous year, which also involves travelling to a dying star and confronting death: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. To an even greater extent than Sunshine, The Fountain fills its frame with almost tactile light, blinding and beautiful all at once. And in this enveloping light, both films express transcendence and spiritual salvation.
Sunshine does have problems, especially the final sequence which suffers from Boyle’s over-stylisation. When the character of Pinbacker appears, naked, scorched and space-crazy, the erratic editing and cinematography distracts from the danger. Narratively and thematically, the ending is fine, but stylistically it is a problem and straighter presentation might have been more effective. This is a recurrent problem with Boyle’s films, although I think he gets the balance right in Trance. In Sunshine, the final spill into horror undoes some of the tension generated in earlier scenes, but the spiritual journeys continue, presenting a route to salvation even, or perhaps especially, in the face of death.