They say that the more you learn, the more you realize — and hopefully come to terms with — the puniness of humanity in relation to the vastness of the universe. But at the same time, the more we know, the more it seems that we have a destiny worthy of the universe: to know it, to conquer it, to uncover its secrets. No one could articulate this dichotomy better than Carl Sagan, who famously said that we speak for a pale blue dot in the midst of an endless starscape. It’s our blue dot, dammit. We should speak proudly.
Sunshine is a movie that Carl Sagan would have liked. It presents Earthlings’ relative insignificance as both the thrust of the plot — humanity’s survival is threatened by cold, unforgiving cosmological processes — and an existential crisis. Our sun is dying and Earth is entering a sure-to-be-fatal winter, but if the inhabitants of Icarus II — the spaceship sent in a last-ditch attempt to reignite the star — were to view it at more than 3.1% brightness from their observation deck, they would emerge blind and possibly burned to a crisp. But they watch anyway, however they can, sitting and staring at the unfeeling monstrosity that is their salvation and almost certainly their death.
What makes Sunshine such singular science-fiction is its ability to deal intelligently with this while at the same time making plausible our heroes’ ultimate victory. It’s usually the films vying for Oscars that claim to be about the “triumph of the human spirit,” but here — in what is at its core a genre film — that triumph is depicted not in some vague anecdotal sense but quite literally. This is a deeply, passionately humanist movie that believes in our courage and ingenuity even as it recognizes our flaws, our moments of weakness, and — yes — our “insignificance.”
It’s also fantastically exciting sci-fi, written with the sort of brutal logic that makes it the equivalent of a slow, relentless vise, the effect amplified by Danny Boyle’s flawless sense of spaceship geography. The characters are sharply drawn, given general types without letting the types define them: Mace (Chris Evans) is a military tough whose dedication to the mission leads him to occasional cruelty but who undeniably holds the crew together; Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) tends to her oxygen garden with a motherly concern and watches in horror as an “excess of manliness” overtakes her shipmates (a development to which Cassie (Rose Byrne) reacts with practiced nonchalance); Capa (Cillian Murphy) — the physicist — is the ship’s conscience to the point where (to Mace’s outrage) he is asked to make life-or-death decisions on behalf of the species. The surface of the film is truly in the best space opera tradition.
Much has been written about the third act, the consensus being that it is an ill-advised plunge into horror schlock and psychedelia. It worked for me, both thematically — the notion being that man faces obstacles from within as well as without — and viscerally. The descent into blurry, off-kilter visual madness is genuinely disorienting and even disturbing; the contrast with the film’s final images makes the latter even more powerful. The progression may fall apart a bit if all this is taken literally, I admit, but it’s the sort of ballsy, grandiose, well-executed move that works anyhow.
Sunshine is the sort of movie I absolutely fall for — science-fiction that takes its story and its influences seriously while at the same time aiming for transcendence. As the last survivor of the Icarus II stares one last time into the sun, it just about gets there.