It’s been a few years since I last watched Danny Boyle’s blistering space drama and although the likes of Gravity and Interstellar have dazzled and amazed in that time, Sunshine really is the pick of the bunch and is still (probably) somewhat underrated.
The film still looks absolutely fantastic and has aged incredibly well, primarily because of an approach to the design that places functionality ahead of an overt style. Production designer Mark Tildesley and director of photography Alwin Küchler worked together to limit the use of reds, oranges and yellows in the design of the ship’s interior to deprive the viewer of those colours, so that the visual impact of the sun’s glow is amplified whenever it appears on screen. The design never draws attention away from the drama and feels like a natural progression from the technology of today, but it still feels somewhat futuristic. To add to this invisible design, the pair also built in enough lighting into the ship’s design to be able to shoot the film without additional lighting.
Similarly Boyle’s insistence on shooting as much of the film in a practical and physical way as possible, such as blasting Cliff Curtis with real dust (though it was actually a powder that is normally used in the making of Cornish pasties), has helped the film to remain fresh and vibrant. Use of CGI was limited to shots that couldn’t be done practically and enhancements of practical set ups. It’s hard to imagine that the film would have been made in the same manner (and for a similar budget) with the current advances in CGI technology, but I’m glad that it was made the way it was.
The character work is incredibly detailed but also highly efficient. The leisurely opening introduces the characters in a natural way and creates a sense that these 8 people had travelled millions of miles across our solar system. There’s a diverse mix of people (reflecting the fact that in the future, it wouldn’t just be the USA who would be involved in the effort to save the sun) who each have a very specific role. Kaneda is pragmatic and assertive; you sense that he’s the captain before it’s ever established and like all good captains, he is willing to sacrifice himself for the mission. As the engineer, Mace ensures that the ship is in best shape to complete the mission but also keeps the rest of the crew focussed too; his prickly manner can make him seem emotionally detached, but he is the one who never loses sight of the mission. Corazon, the biologist, sits somewhere in between those two: very confident and focussed on her job and able to see the bigger picture but let down by her attachment to the oxygen garden.
Searle has to keep the crew in good physical and mental health, but there’s nobody keeping an eye on him as he becomes increasingly entranced by the sun’s shine. Icarus II’s pilot Cassie is the emotional heart of the crew, the one who is most in touch with her humanity. She holds on to her moral integrity and challenges the cold, hard logic of other crewmembers. As communications officer, Harvey spends a lot communicating with Earth and so he is inevitably the one who is most homesick and concerned with how he is going to get back to Earth, even before the ship has reached the sun. After failing to change the angle of the shields when Icarus II alters course, navigation officer Trey finds himself lost, filled with self-doubt and under pressure from his ruthless crewmates who view his failure as unacceptable.
Most fascinating of them all though is Capa; the man behind the bomb to save the world. He’s the most important person on the ship and perhaps knows it. He seems more detached from the rest of the crew, bar a close relationship with Cassie. In the conversation with Cassie after the oxygen garden is destroyed, Capa explains that he isn’t scared because he will now get the opportunity to potentially see the sun’s rebirth when the bomb goes off. He will get to see the one thing that he has spent his life studying. It’s a desire born out of a truth that Professor Brian Cox, who was the scientific advisor on the film before his ventures into television documentaries, explained at a Q&A screening :
“The essence of science is an emotional reaction to nature, in the sense that you want to find out about it. So you have to notice there’s something beautiful there. When you’re young and you want to be a scientist, why do you want to do it? You don’t want to do it because you want sort of unpick it in this absolutely cold way; you’re emotionally overwhelmed by it.”
I studied cell biology at university and often marvelled at the elegance of nature as I learnt about the very building blocks of human beings; from the way DNA is transcribed and translated in the nucleus and ribosomes to the numerous regulatory cycles that keep our internal systems in check. Capa has probably spent most of his career studying the sun and The Big Bang, so to get a chance to see it for real is exciting for him. His motivation throughout the story is a mix of this personal desire as well as the larger desire to save Earth. It’s no mistake that we hear the extract of Cassie’s dialogue about the surface of the sun as Capa makes his final jump across to the payload section. It’s one of the emotional highpoints of the film, amplified by Cillian Murphy’s great performance, a reprise of John Murphy’s rousing theme (which replaced, for a while at least, Clint Mansell’s Lux Aeterna as the go to music for film trailers) and something as simple as muting Capa’s scream as he hurls himself out of the disintegrating ship. It’s a spine-tingling moment of cinema.
The End and The Beginning of All Things
The shift in tone for final 30 minutes is often criticised as the film’s major downfall; whilst the shift is initially jarring, its necessity becomes more and more apparent with every viewing. It represents Alex Garland and Danny Boyle's willingness to take the film's premise as far as they can, to ask what could happen in this specific situation. Pinbacker is essentially a spanner thrown into the works to disrupt the mission and create an element of doubt surrounding the success of the mission. Sure, the filmmakers could've thought of some technical malfunction that would have achieved a similar ratcheting of tension, but that’s been done plenty of times before. Instead, they create a character and a situation that are as thematically relevant as they are narratively relevant; a character and situation that are specific to a story about a crew approaching the source of all life in the universe.
Pinbacker views the sun as a god, a figure of divine providence with whom humanity should not interfere. As he approached the sun, he found God in its light and turned his back on the mission by sabotaging Icarus I and killing the crew. Similarly, he attempts to dispatch the crew of Icarus II to stop them from interfering in his dialogue with God and his goal to become the last man alive with God.
If Pinbacker represents a faith in god, then Capa represents a faith in science, reason and logic. At the film’s early turning point, the crew turn to the person most qualified to decide whether it is worth approaching Icarus I to see if their payload is usable. The crew place their faith in the power of science and logic to get them to the end of their mission. As the ship nears the sun however, many of the crew succumb to the irrationalities of humanity: Trey’s guilt overwhelms him, Corazon is too emotionally invested in her oxygen garden, Harvey’s homesickness clouds his judgment, Cassie’s can’t drop her morality and Searle yields to spirituality in the face of the sun (mirroring Pinbacker’s path to his enlightenment). Only Kaneda and Mace retain their rationality and both sacrifice themselves in order to see that Capa stays alive and can get his bomb to the launch site.
Personally, I see Capa reacting to something that he never thought he’d see, whether it’s God, a second big-bang or something completely inexplicable. When used right, ambiguity can enhance an ending and encourage the viewer to continue thinking about the film long after it has ended. With Sunshine, the ambiguity works incredibly well and brings a marvellous film to a satisfying end.
 - 'Sunshine' Q&A with Danny Boyle, Mark Kermode & Brian Cox - Winter Shuffle Festival, 2013
 - IGN Interview with Danny Boyle, 14th March 2007