By Michael W. Harris
Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007), written by the future Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018) writer/director Alex Garland, was, for me, the film from which I learned the phrase “third act problems.” In this way, it was a seminal film in my development as a critical viewer and analyzer of the cinematic arts. And yet, despite these problems, it remains, in my regard, an outstanding example of the science fiction genre and a film that I whole heartedly recommend.
The following essay had its start in my long delayed hauntology project (I promise that will begin posting soon), but in the process of streamlining that series and removing a number of films because the essays I was writing kept getting longer, I decided that both Sunshine and Ex Machina did not really fit with the themes I was developing…though Sunshine was heartbreaking to remove because I do want more people to watch it, flaws and all.
I will readily admit that the film’s jarring tonal shift is an issue (and one that both Boyle and Garland seem to suffer from in many films), however it does have its place. In poking and prodding at what I see as the fatal disconnect between the film that occurs before the third act and what comes after, I saw a glimpse into it what I believe was its primary purpose: an examination of the human mind in the face of the overwhelming power and a seeming inevitable catastrophe. It asks the question of what an impending apocalypse reveals about our species and ourselves.
Yet, despite these flaws, these twists have their place. So in a miniseries I am going to examine three of Alex Garland’s films as a sort of lead-up to finally beginning the hauntology project, beginning with Sunshine this week. Look for essays on Ex Machina and Annihilation in the weeks to come.
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So brief synopsis for Sunshine: about fifty or so years in the future, for reasons not stated in the film, the sun is slowly dying, growing dimmer as Earth slipps into what is called a “solar winter.” In a bid to revive the sun, humanity has mined all the fissionable material on Earth and constructed a giant bomb that will be delivered and exploded in the sun. The first attempt to do this, the Icarus I, failed to deliver its payload for unknown reasons. That was seven years ago and the remaining nuclear material was formed into a second bomb—“the size of Manhattan Island”—and truly represents humanity’s last chance at survival. As Capa (Cillian Murphy) says at the beginning of the film: “Welcome to Icarus II.”
The film plays out fairly conventionally once these basics are set-up. We see the toll that extended space travel has on the crew of the Icarus II. Searle (Cliff Curtis), ostensibly the crew’s psychiatrist, is becoming possibly too fascinated with viewing the sun in a special observation room. Mace (Chris Evans), the ship’s computer expert, is becoming easier to agitate and hotheaded, and Capa, the physicist in charge of the bomb, is becoming quiet, withdrawn, and prone of nightmares in which he is falling into the sun with his bomb. It is really a formula that we have seen in so many near future sci-fi films. The effects of a closed environment on the human psyche.
However, as the ship enters the communications dead zone earlier than expected, we witness this tension ramp up, especially with the character of Mace, who is clearly wound too tight and focused on “staying on mission.” This comes to the fore when the ship picks up the distress beacon from Icarus I and Mace is steadfastly against deviating from the mission to examine the ship for any possible survivors. However, the decision is left to Capa who makes the choice to deviate on the chance that they can use the bomb and have “two last chances” instead of one.
But this decision leads down the path that will end with the entire crew’s death as Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Capa have to go outside the ship and repair panels on the bomb’s solar shield. And this action also leads to damage to the ships oxygen garden, and Trey’s (Benedict Wong) descent into depression and eventual suicide as it was his mistake in changing the ships course that led to the damaged shield. One problem begets another in a logical series of dominoes.
Upon docking with the Icarus I, things get worse, foreshadowed by brief glimpses of photos of that ship’s crew that start flashing on-screen. We eventually find the crew dead in the sun observation room, the filter turned off and the crew burned alive by direct exposure to the sunshine. The Icarus II crew also discover messages from the captain of the Icarus I, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), but their exploring is cut short when the airlock between the two ships experiences an explosive decompression. The result of the desperate attempt to return is that acting captain Harvey (Troy Garity) dies, and Searle has to stay behind in order to blow open the airlock. Searle then chooses death by exposure to the sun once the Icarus II clears rather than dying slowly on-board the dead ship.
Everything up to this point is pretty conventional sci-fi, with the interesting parts being the relationship of the crew, and especially Searle, whose fascination with the sun is paralleled in many aspects of what we find out about the fate of the Icarus I. But this is the point at which the film enters the third act.
Once things settle back to being “on mission” aboard the Icarus II, the crew has to discuss how to get rid of one more “breather” or else they will not have the oxygen left to complete said mission. Luckily, Trey commits suicide and keeps Mace from having to kill him like he had volunteered to. But they also discover that there is another person on-board. It is Pinbacker, burnt and bloodied from exposure to the sun, and clearly deranged. He kills Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), who had been in charge of the garden, right as she discovers a new plant growing in the rubble of the burned garden. He then removes the computer from its cooling tanks, which causes Mace to attempt to fix it and leads to his death.
Cassie (Rose Byrne) flees to the bomb and Capa eventually makes his way there, defeats Pinbacker, and gets to the bomb controls just in time to ignite the chain reaction as the bomb falls into the sun. We then cut to Earth and see the sun brighten. Humanity is saved.
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So what type of film, then, is Sunshine? In the end, I would have to say it is a sort of psychological horror film, but it only becomes that in retrospect. Prior to the final act, it is only psychological science-fiction. There are many parallels I could draw between this film and Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979) film, and also the more recent Alien Covenant (2017): characters are usually known by a single name (a weird device in many sci-fi films), crews are initially on one mission and are pulled away after receiving a distress signal, and there are numerous moments when supposedly smart people do incredibly stupid things that wind up getting them killed.
While I keep identifying the jumping the shark moment tonally as the third act, it really does start at the midpoint of act two, when the Icarus II docks with the Icarus I. This is when we start seeing the flashes of the first crew, and we start to piece together what happened and Pinbacker is revealed as something more menacing, though we have yet to see him in the burned flesh.
The psychosis of Pinbacker is interesting, though. His belief, as revealed in his many speeches towards the end, is that he has essentially given up on saving the earth once he begins to see the enormity of the sun. He has been exposing himself to its power like Searle, bathing in its light like some sort of religious ritual. But whereas Searle never has the chance to lose his humanity, Pinbacker gives in to the despair the situation. And this is the core of my complaint with the film turning into a horror film: it cheapens the character development of the rest of the film by turning Pinbacker from what could have been an abstract antagonist, who represents an existential threat, to a physical threat to be overcome. Not to mention that Pinbacker becoming physical results in one of my pet peeves of so many films: wanting your character to overcome something only to have that success stolen from them at the last minute. The Icarus II has a problem with replenishing food and oxygen and the Icarus I can solve that problem, but then it all goes bad. The crew makes the choice to sacrifice themselves to save humanity, then Pinbacker throws that all into doubt. There is creating obstacles to overcome, and then there is deus ex-machina-ing new obstacles because plot.
But beyond all that, the problem with Pinbacker is that his exact reasons for going crazy are never well defined. It is left up to the viewer to intuit that he, much like Searle, grew increasingly fascinated by the sun, its raw power and what it represents, and then gives into a belief that it is too big a problem to solve. Searle notes, upon finding the bodies of the Icarus I crew dead in the observation room, “Ashes to Ashes, stardust to stardust,” blending Carl Sagan’s observation about humanity with the traditional religious funeral rite. This one line underscores a core element of the film: the fate of humanity is inexorably tied to the fate of the sun. We are born of it, we are nourished by it, and in the end, it will eventually die, and so will the Earth. Whether this happens for unknown reasons like the film, or in the natural decay of the star in billions of years, the end result is the same.
All that being said, Pinbacker is given some choice lines and speeches in the third act that do hint at his motivation. His utterly nihilistic view of humanity: “At the end of time a moment will come when just one man remains. And the moment will pass. The man will be gone. There will be nothing to show that we were ever here but stardust. The last man, alone with god. Am I that man?” Or, the clearest sign that his seven years of solitude have taken its toll: “For seven years I spoke with god. He told me to take us all to heaven.” He is like some sort of deranged cult leader left behind after all of his followers have already killed themselves.
And how did the crew of the Icarus I die? Did Pinbacker kill them? Did they kill themselves after the failure of the ship’s computer? Did they know what had happened to Pinbacker’s mental state? The lingering questions frustrate me and were, at their root, caused by Pinbacker’s transformation from an existential threat, a preview of what could happen to the crew of the Icarus II, to a physical threat to the ship and mission.
Somewhere, there is an alternate third act of this film in which Mace or Capa find Pinbacker’s logs and start to recognize the slow unraveling of Pinbacker as we intercut with Searle in the observation room and we piece together the failure of Icarus I with Pinbacker’s declining mental state and possibly even his murder of the crew. And maybe some similar events happen: the explosive decompression of the airlock and leap across the gap, Searle might even kill some of the crew and leaves the ship in such a state that whoever is left has to sacrifice themselves to save the mission. However, by externalizing Pinbacker, making him a physical presence who looks like some sort of cross between Freddy Kruger and Leatherface with a name that reminds me of Pinhead from Hellraiser, really cheapens the entire storyline of Searle even as it provids the perfect counterbalance to him.
And speaking of tropes of horror films, the order in which the characters die also speaks to the genre: it is mostly the minority characters that die first. The first character to die is Kaneda, then Searle (Cliff Curtis is ethnically Maori, but often cast as almost any dark-skinned ethnicity) and Harvey (the only white person to die early on, but is shown to be quite cowardly) leave the film at roughly the same time. Following that Trey kills himself (playing into the cowardly Asian stereotype) and Cora is killed by Pinbacker. Once Cora dies, the only characters left are Mace, Capa, and Cassie, all white. Mace dies by computer (essentially), and Capa and Cassie die riding the bomb into the Sun.
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So let is talk about Searle, because even though Capa is ostensibly the protagonist of Sunshine, it is Searle that is the most fascinating character. And in the end it would have been a much stronger film if it had been a character study of him.
Capa is the first voice we hear in the film—outlining the basis of the film, the ship’s mission, and the stakes of the film—but it is Searle that we first see on screen, looking at the sun and pushing his body to the limits of its exposure. But he considers it a transformative experience, one that he says is like “taking a shower in light.” Yet Searle is never shown to be outwardly unraveling even as we see his behavior causing physical changes: wearing sunglasses more often outside the observation room, growing sunburns on his face (at one point pulling at the skin that is flaking off), and he even starts to wear a hat. These are also shown to have happened to Pinbacker as in one of the few messages of his that we see show his face as also being ravaged by sunburns.
We observe Searle’s physical transformations, but we see precious little of his psychological transformation as he keeps a steady demeanor even while growing more and more obsessed with the sun. This is a powerful element of the film, leaving the audience to wonder when he might turn even while counseling the rest of the crew as their psychiatrist. He is the one to recommend altering course to meet the Icarus I, making the argument of “two last chances” that sways Capa towards recommending it. Searle remains committed to saving humanity whereas Pinbacker gave into despair. And in the end, as Searle puts it, “we’re only stardust,” and he dies as he probably would have wanted to, bathed in sunlight.
More Pinbacker-like, though, is Mace. He is military through and through, never wanting to deviate from the mission. He has detached any sense of humanity from the mission, viewing all as expendable in the pursuit of the mission goal. In order to save humanity, you must become inhuman. He will sacrifice whoever needs to be sacrificed to succeed. He is willing to kill Trey, and wants to give up any chance of survivors on the Icarus I. Mace is a much darker meditation on “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
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One element where Sunshine truly stands out, though, is in its musical score, co-written by electronic music duo Underworld and composer John Murphy. Most famous are the two “adagios” used at key moments in the film. The first occurs during Kaneda’s death, and the second at the end when Capa detaches the bomb and begins the final confrontation with Pinbacker. These adagios have been used extensively since then, especially in trailers for other films (I remember its excellent use in the first trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past).
The score itself has a hypnotic nature to it, shifting between hopeful and melancholic, with some decent into screeching horror in the third act. For so much of the film, it retains an optimistic character, and even the adagios retain that overall quality, which is another reason why the third act turn to horror is so jarring. That being said, the film does a great job of matching music and image beats, creating a unified whole. This unification is nowhere more apparent than in the second adagio beginning right when Capa detaches the bomb from Icarus II, signaling not only the restoration of hope for humanity, but also the eventually death of Capa and Cassie. It parallels how the first adagio played during Kaneda’s death while ensuring the survival of the mission of the Icarus II. The adagios also underscore the majesty and power of the sun in that their intensity builds as the cues progress, adding in more instruments and rhythmic motion.
In the first adagio, Kaneda’s faces his death head on, and Searle asks him over and over what he sees, screaming at the end as Kaneda silently witnesses the raw power of the sun. In the second, it plays as Capa has to make his way to the airlock and literally leap from the Icarus II to the bomb that he has detached because he has to physically arm the bomb. It is the final moment of sacrifice and whereas before Capa leapt to get off the shield during the first adagio, and another time jumped between ships to escape back to safety from the Icarus I, this time he is leaping to his death—though in death also ensuring the survival of humanity. Capa’s leaps metaphorically tie into the ancient myth that underlies so much of this film: Icarus and Daedalus. Humanity has flown too close to the sun twice now with disastrous results. However, at least the second time its sacrifices were not for naught.
This contrast of hopefulness with somber music extends to a song played during the end credits, “Avenue of Hope” by the British band I Am Kloot. The song was not written from the film, but its feeling and lyrics mesh well with it and make it a particularly inspired choice by Danny Boyle. The lyrics themselves speak to a striving in the face of trouble and hardship. The singer is speaking to either a god or another unspecified being, or possibly just expressing his hope in a future. “Don’t let me falter, don’t let me ride / Don’t let the earth in me subside / Let me see just who I will become.” This lyric later becomes more pleading: “Don’t let me falter, don’t let me hide / Don’t let someone else decide / Just who or what I will become.” And the lyrics also change between first and third person, indicating the shifting perspectives that the singer has on the events around him. Regardless of who the singer is speaking of, it is an expression of hope for the future, albeit one tinged with cynicism.
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As I said at the beginning, what makes this film important in my history is how it marks the beginning of my awareness of film as an art form. It was 2007 and I was getting ready to move to Colorado. While I did not start a PhD with the intention of studying film music, the fact that I was becoming more well versed in the language of film analysis and could articulate a “third act problem,” was an important marker in my development. On some level, it is part of what gave me the confidence in my ability to write about film and music, though I would still do extensive readings on film and film music that deepened my understanding of the form during the course of my studies.
Sunshine is not a perfect film, but it is one that has gone underappreciated and possibly also a bit misunderstood. It asks a lot of big questions, and is hard sci-fi overlaid, quite thickly at times, with mythology. The fact that the ship is named “Icarus” and that humanity’s hubris is front and center of the problems that lead to the crew’s downfall (not only in their in-fighting but also the insanity that overtook Pinbacker), makes its drawing upon Greek myth quite literal and on-the-nose. And yet, I will always recommend the film to friends. Sunshine, along with Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009), is one of my favorite sci-fi films from the 2000s. I might also include Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) on the list, but I am not quite sure if that counts as sci-fi…and also how I feel about it—it is currently on the list of films for the hauntology series, but it keeps swapping places with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
So, watch this film. Then watch the essays by Movies With Mikey and Like Stories of Old on the film and have a chat with a friend. There is much to chew on here. And even if you don’t like there, there is wonderful music and some absolutely jaw-dropping visuals.
I really need to buy this film on Blu-ray.