Throwback Thursdays is a place where KABOOOOOM writers look back at things that have inspired, influenced and amazed them from geekdom past. This week, Isabel Hsu revisits Danny Boyle’s 2007 science fiction film, Sunshine.
In the busy world of Hollywood, it’s easy for smaller movies to slip through the cracks and sit latent in the consciousness of the mainstream. One of these movies is Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, a sci-fi stunner that was released six years ago this month.
Boyle, the poster child for modern British cinema, is well-known today for films like Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, both of which carry inspiring, powerful themes of resilience and hope. But before Jamal and Latika’s uplifting love story secured Boyle as a fixture in the Academy Awards circuit, his filmography was comprised mainly of bleaker, grimmer films, like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and of course, Sunshine. These films contain the same universal message of endurance in the face of extremities, but approach the themes from a darker, more disillusioned place.
Sunshine chronicles the mission of eight astronauts in the year 2057, moving through space aboard the Icarus II, a spacecraft carrying their “payload”, a massive bomb meant to re-ignite the dying sun in the midst of a solar winter. The crew is made up of eight core members: physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), engineer Mace (Chris Evans), pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne), biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), psychologist Searle (Cliff Curtis), communications officer Harvey (Troy Garity), navigator Trey (Benedict Wong), and captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada). Their journey is the second of its kind, picking up where the previously failed mission of their predecessor, Icarus I, had left off.
The survival of earth depends on the success of their mission, and while this sort of ‘space mission to save the planet’ premise isn’t entirely new, the film’s blend of mythology with religious philosophy is both fascinating and frightening in its implications.
The spacecraft that the crew is traveling on is called Icarus II, alluding to a the Greek myth of a man who built his own pair of wings out of feathers and wax only to burn out and fall back to earth when he flew too close to the sun. Representative of the finite limits of man, it’s certainly a foreboding name to give a vessel that’s headed straight for the sun.
However, the story of the film seems to be a subversion of Greek mythology, rather than a direct derivation – instead of the Greek titan Prometheus bringing fire and light to earth from the gods, it is humanity bringing light back to the proverbial heavens through the crew’s ultimate goal of detonating a bomb in the sun. Man moves past what he is designed to do, making an attempt to play God and toying with the concepts of fate and free will through efforts to reignite the dying star that has given earth life for billions of years.
Sunshine subverts common narrative conventions through its use of the metaphorical themes of light and dark. Traditionally, light is a symbol of hope and purity, while darkness brings about images of danger and evil. However, light is the antagonist in Sunshine, proving both psychologically damaging and lethal. “It’s all about the light”, acknowledges Boyle, in an interview with Edge Boston. “Somebody said Apocalypse Now is a journey to the heart of darkness; this is the [journey to the] heart of lightness… it is about light, and darkness; those two things are extraordinary”. The crew of the Icarus II seeks solace, comfort, and safety in darkness, while the film’s villain, the deranged captain Pinbacker of the doomed Icarus I, claims to have “seen the light”, and that this light was what inspired him to sabotage the crew’s mission in an effort to allow the earth to die.
Boyle’s trademark style involves extreme close-ups, jarring angles, and kinetic camera movements, all of which are prominently displayed in Sunshine. The technical mastery of these techniques creates haunting feelings of claustrophobia and isolation that pervade through each frame. “In other genres there’s a lot of terrain to work with, but in space movies you can’t escape tight corridors and little rooms surrounded by metal,” Boyle stated in an interview with the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). “…Space is infinite but claustrophobic at the same time. There’s no real reprieve – you can’t step outside for a breath of fresh air.”
Interestingly enough, the visuals of Sunshine weren’t inspired by preceding sci-fis, such as Alien, quite as much as they were inspired by Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. Much of Sunshine’s tense, claustrophobic atmosphere was drawn from the 1981 German classic. Production designers encapsulated the smother of physical and corporal confinement by building hard ceilings into the sets, and cinematographer Alwin Küchler enhanced the practical sets by gradually increasing the focal length of the lenses to further compress the space. “Danny wanted to play around with scale,” noted cinematographer Küchler, in the same ASC interview. “As [the crew] approach[es] the sun, the sun takes up more space in each character’s psyche, and the tension ratchets up.”
Boyle’s decision to feature an ensemble cast was aimed at creating a sort of functioning, small-scale democracy aboard the Icarus II. The diverse internationality of the cast, with most of its members relatively unknown at the time, was also deliberately planned and constructed to achieve this purpose. The cast underwent extensive method preparation for their roles. In addition to quartering the cast members in small, communal living spaces, Boyle assigned them to space training programs and other related group activities to aid them in developing an understanding of the emotional and physical demands of the film.
The film makes the most of its modest budget, delivering stunning visuals and a brilliant use color to set it apart from its sci-fi analogues. Most outer space movies are extremely limited in pallete, sticking with neutral blues and grays within the interiors of their spacecrafts. Initially, it seems as if Sunshine adheres to this model, as the Icarus II is introduced in muted, steely shades. This starvation of color, however, proves deliberate when audiences catch their first searing glimpse of the sun, singled out in fiery, awe-inspiring whites, yellows, and oranges.
After its release in 2007, Sunshine was met with mixed reception as critics either admired Boyle’s ambition, or loathed the film’s third act reversal. Some were fascinated by the philosophical and ethical questions raised, while others found it obtuse and heavy-handed.
Most importantly, when boiled down to the basic ingredients of a science fiction film, Sunshine hits the right recipe with its juxtaposition of sensuous visuals against a narrative exploration of the limits and empirical terrain of humanity. While it may not be the most well-known or celebrated sci-fi movie in recent history, it leaves its own indelible mark on the genre with its haunting, beautifully-constructed portrait of an imaginable apocalyptic future.