In the introduction to the script book for Sunshine, screenwriter Alex Garland states that he and director Danny Boyle had opposite interpretations of the film's spirituality. Garland intended the film to be a story about atheism and an illustration of the folly of mysticism and irrationality. Boyle, on the other hand, believed that film's scientific mission is, in fact, a mystical quest. This sort of disagreement would drive many a screenwriter mad, but Garland offers an insightful statement on the matter:
"I didn't see this as a major problem, because the difference in our approach wasn't in conflict with the way in which the story would be told. The two interpretations that could be made from the narrative were the same two interpretations that could be made from the world around us. In that respect, perhaps the difference was even appropriate."Some of this disagreement shows through in the film, but thankfully it takes the form of complexity rather than confusion. The film's characters embody different approaches to the film's mystical themes, with ample room for viewers to draw their own conclusions.
Sunshine is difficult to describe, in large part because it begs comparison with other SF films. It wears many of its classic influences (Alien, 2001, and even Dark Star) on its sleeve. But it also begs comparison with several more recent SF films which, justly or unjustly, have been much maligned.* Indeed, a summary of the film's plot makes it sound like it should be boring or schlocky or both. The sun (a portentous opening voiceover tells us) is dying. Several years ago a ship called Icarus was launched to deploy a massive bomb to reignite the star, but the ship disappeared without a trace. Now a second mission (Icarus II—why not Prometheus or Daedalus—or Lucifer?) has been sent on the same mission. But the second bomb used up all of Earth's fissile material, so this is Earth's last chance. It could easily have ended up banal, but it has two things going for it. First of all, the film is absolutely gorgeous. I generally dislike the aesthetic laziness of CG-heavy movies, but Sunshine is miles beyond most recent SF films. Second (and most important), Boyle suffuses the story with enough humanity to make us really care. Early in the film we see the face of Capa (Cillian Murphy), the scientist who created the bomb, staring nervously into the camera. He's recording a farewell message to his family that may be the last they ever hear from him. In less-talented hands it would be trite, but Boyle and Murphy make it feel honest because they know that Capa's false starts are more important than his finished message.
Boyle's interpretation of the story's spiritual aspects are present from the opening scene, in which ship's psychologist Searle (Cliff Curtis) bathes in the glow of the approaching sun on the ship's observation deck. Searle has become obsessed with the sun; he bakes himself in the observation deck until his skin is peeling from burns. But when he explains his experience to another crewmember, we get a sense that Boyle shares his enthusiasm for the transcendent. Searle compares the experience of bathing in pure sunlight with sensory deprivation (and, by proxy, the experience of deep space):
"The point about darkness is you float in it. You and the darkness are distinct from each other because darkness is an absence of something. It's a vacuum. But total light envelops you. It becomes you."Searle's devotional practices (and the film's conclusion) reminded me of the Sufi concept of fanā, the annihilation of the individual soul in the vastness of God, frequently symbolized as a moth dying in a candle's flame. Later in the film we see an extreme critique of this sort of mysticism, however. It happens in a final-act plot twist that I won't spoil, though I will say that it struck me as a somewhat unnecessary attempt to inject some elements of horror and action into the story. I'm still unsure how I feel about the film's inclusion of a villain whose evil is based on the belief that he is on a divine mission. I interpret the largely anti-religious tone of the film's later scenes as an attempt to flesh out a spectrum of faith: Searle's opening meditation presents mysticism and mania, and the final act of Sunshine gives us an image of religious psychosis.
But there's also a subtler position on Sunshine's map of faith. At one point in the film, the ship is running out of air (as must happen in deep-space thrillers). There is enough oxygen left to complete the mission and save humanity—but only if one crew member is murdered. The crew views the situation pragmatically: what is one life worth in the face of human extinction? But Cassie (Rose Byrne), the ship's pilot, refuses to support the decision: "I know the argument. I know the logic. You're saying you need my vote; I'm saying you can't have it." There's an unspoken idea in her refusal to participate: I would rather you kill me than make me complicit in the death of another. It struck me as a remarkably Christian ethical decision, an insistence on finding any other solution than one that relied on murder. And sure enough, the careful viewer will note that Cassie wears a cross pendant throughout the film. What is the audience meant to think of her decision, or of the differing pictures of mysticism presented in the film? There are no easy answers in Sunshine, which is part of what makes it such an enjoyable film—it's happy to be complex. It's a good thing that Danny Boyle countered the atheism Alex Garland saw in his screenplay—the movie thrives on the multiplicity of its attitudes.
Sunshine opens in the U.S. on July 20th. For more on mystical experience in SF, see chapter 4 of The Gospel According to Science Fiction.
*To name a few: Mission to Mars, which valiantly tried and valiantly failed to be an entertaining hard SF story; Steven Soderbergh's Solaris remake, which has a similarly elegiac tone to Sunshine; and Event Horizon, which shares more than a few plot elements with Boyle and Garland's film. [Conventional wisdom has yet to crystallize on whether Event Horizon is a brilliant movie or a terrible one. For what it's worth, I loved it. But if you didn't, don't let that keep you from seeing Sunshine.