Directed by Danny Boyle
“ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust.”
The Icarus II is sent to reignite a dying sun in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, and yes, there was an Icarus I, and yes the Icarus II crew will come across the distress signal of the Icarus I which hadn’t been heard from in seven years. Spooky.
Okay, it is spooky, because I think it’s incredibly well done. Written by Alex Garland, Sunshine works with the same heady sci-fi ideas as his other movies, like Ex Machina and Annihilation. There is a mission, or a test, and a sense that if it doesn’t go well then we’re all doomed. On this mission his characters will flirt with some kind of higher being, whether robot, alien or otherwise. They will, in a symbolic sense, fly too close to the sun, and in Sunshine they literally… well you get it.
The Icarus II has a crew of eight people, just enough to be slowly picked off throughout the movie. Their ship is led by a giant shield to protect them from the increasingly strong sun rays which, without the aid of the shield, would obliterate them. One of the crew, Searle (Cliff Curtis) is fascinated with looking into the sun as if it is a spiritual experience. From what we see through the rest of the film, it might be.
This is a crew of scientists and astronauts, but once you get through the technical speak, i.e. how to solve immediate life or death problems, there is room to debate the philosophical, particularly once they cross the ghostly remains of the Icarus I.
On their way to the sun the crew receives the aforementioned distress signal. After a brief debate, they venture down to the Icarus I, a ship whose possibly undeployed payload might give them two chances at success on their grave mission.
Human error is the antagonist of the first half of the movie, with multiple characters making miscalculations, including deviating from their predetermined flight path, that will have fatal consequences. Once they get to the Icarus I the possibly no longer human, certainly sunburned captain of the prequel ship, Pinbacker (Mark Strong) will become the slasher-villain the film perhaps doesn’t need. He’s at least the personification of all the forces working against them, a Deadpool (sans the uniform) looking man who apparently speaks only in doomed poetry and attempts to sabotage the mission, as he did with Icarus I.
See, Pinbacker thinks it’s humans’ time to die, God has decided it. He suggests that any attempt to save our planet is an act of ego, a thematic subtext that I think can be found in many of these sci-fi stories, particularly ones set in space with humans far away from habitable civilization. Just being so far from home is often an act of rebellion against some higher, cosmic force.
Sunshine works, I’d say, because you feel the weight of what these characters are up against, and the movie makes death feel somehow worse than death normally does. The characters will repeat the idea that all we are is dust (dust is 80% human skin, it seems), and that all we will be is dust. Which, I mean, yeah, but like don’t ruin my trip, you know?
It’s both a beautiful and horrifying thought, and Sunshine works more on the horrifying side. In addition to the impalings and guttings of most slasher movies, as this one becomes near the tail end, we will watch characters be incinerated and, in the most disturbing death sequence, freeze to death in the vacuum of space with just enough time to appear to grasp that holy f*ck you’re freezing/suffocating to death in space. This character’s frozen body then drifts into an object which shatters his arm before he too is incinerated by the rays of the sun.
To me this is about as good as a sci-fi movie can be, at least for the first hour. It does become a little tired when Pinbacker arrives and just mows through the remaining crew like we’ve seen a million times before. It seemed to me an oversimplification of an antagonistic force that was strongly felt throughout the movie. Did there really need to be such a villain or did the story just run out of ways to kill off the crew?
Up Next: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Vice (2018), Traffic (2000)