“Every time I close my eyes” | Sunshine (2007)

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It is fifty years into the future. The Earth’s sun is dying. One human mission to re-ignite the sun’s core has ended in catastrophic failure. A second and final mission is underway: the Icarus II, commanded by a small crew of astronauts and scientists and carrying the largest explosive device ever conceived.

This arresting science fiction premise was developed by novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland, whose bestselling novel The Beach had been adapted into a 2000 feature film by English director Danny Boyle. Garland and Boyle collaborated a second time with their 2002 film 28 Days Later, a harrowing mash-up of zombie movie and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. When Garland developed the idea of a science fiction film about a mission to the sun, Danny Boyle was the first and only director that he approached. Within 24 hours of being handed the first draft of Garland’s screenplay, Boyle agreed to direct it.

‘I always had a desire to write a certain kind of science fiction film,’ explained Garland. ‘I wanted to explore the idea of man travelling into deep space and what he discovers there, as well as what he finds in his own subconscious.’ [1]

Danny Boyle said: ‘The premise of eight astronauts strapped to the back of this enormous bomb, flying behind this golden shield trying to explode this bomb within the surface of the Sun, I just thought I would watch a film like that. I wouldn’t need any second invitation.’ [2] In a separate interview Boyle noted: ‘We started thinking and there’s never been a film about the sun. There’s a bit in Lost in Space where they comically go through the sun and come about the other side and that’s about it as far as films about the sun go.’ [3]

Danny Boyle is a relatively mercurial director, capable of sharp shifts in tone and style from film to film. His debut feature, Shallow Grave (1994), was a tightly-wound claustrophobic thriller, whereas his follow-up Trainspotting (1996) was a more humorous edgy drama about heroin addicts in Edinburgh. He followed those films with a comedy (A Life Less Ordinary in 1997), an adventure film (The Beach in 2000), a horror movie (28 Days Later in 2002) and a surreal family-oriented Christmas drama (Millions in 2004).

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Sunshine represented a break into yet another genre for Boyle: science fiction. ‘I’m at the opening night of films like Contact, Starship Troopers, Alien Resurrection’ he said. ‘I went to all those films on the Friday or Saturday night in Leicester Square and I don’t do that with other films, so I realised I was a bit of a fan really, particularly those real NASA-type films rather than the Star Wars fantasy sci-fi. So I guess I had a bug for it really.’ [4]

For Boyle it was an irresistible opportunity to add his own contribution to the genre. ‘It is in the classic tradition,’ he explained. ‘In many ways it’s like a love letter to those kinds of films, and they break down into three ingredients: There’s a ship, a crew, and a signal that changes everything. Basically, if you think about them all, so many are like that; they have those sets of ingredients in them.’ [5]

‘In other genres,’ he added, ‘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. And when you’re working in those tight corridors, you’re keenly aware of all the filmmakers who’ve done amazing work before you in the same kind of corridors; you can feel them right there with you, and that challenges you to make your own mark in that corridor for future filmmakers to bump into.’ [6]

Alex Garland continued to develop his screenplay while Boyle worked on his next directorial effort, the 2004 family drama Millions. Over a 12 month period Garland went through more than 35 drafts of the script. Many of the rewrites involved developing ways to expand or explore the film’s diverse characters. ‘We tried a romance,’ admitted Boyle, ‘but realised that it didn’t work because it hadn’t been done before. 2010: The Year We Made Contact (1984) tried to do it, but even there it didn’t take off, so we decided to leave it out.’ [7]

Sunshine went ahead via 20th Century Fox, who had funded and distributed Boyle and Garland’s earlier collaborations The Beach and 28 Days Later. The production budget was set at US$45 million dollars, which was remarkably low for a space-set, effects-filled science fiction thriller.

Physicist and television presenter Brian Cox was employed to act as the film’s scientific advisor. ‘Brian Cox is the nicest guy, but he’s so arrogant,’ joked Boyle. ‘I used to tell the actors to watch the way he’ll just go “no”. He works at CERN, where they are looking for this particle they nickname the God particle. There is a tiny, tiny chance that when they collide these protons they’ll create a black hole into which we’ll all disappear. I said, “You’re still going ahead with it?” He said, “Don’t worry about it, you won’t know anything about it [if it happens].’ [8]

‘The science is extremely sound in the film,’ said Cox. ‘You can tell Alex Garland is a fan of science as well as a science fiction fan. There were a few edges we ironed out but basically it was the back story rather than the plot that my expertise was needed for.’ [9]

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While scientific accuracy was important to the project, Boyle made it clear that he was not planning on letting the science get in the way of telling the best possible story. ‘Obviously,’ he argued, ‘they’re not going to award the film a Nobel Prize because you have to abandon the science sometimes.’ [10]

Boyle consulted with representatives from the USA’s National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA), in order to develop realistic sets, technology and characters. ‘When they sent Armstrong to the moon,’ Boyle explained, ‘they hid from the American people how much it was costing. In fact, it’s only been revealed about five years ago and it’s just a staggering amount of money. Unbelievable. And they said that if the American people had known, they would have shut it down because it was just unbelievable how much of your taxes were going along on this moon mission. So they hid it. And now, if you’re thinking about a mission that would happen in fifty years’ time, the first question you have to ask is who will pay for that mission? And NASA said, “To be honest, the emerging economies. America will be lucky if we’re still involved because the principle drivers will be the Asian economies. India, China, maybe Japan.”’ [11]

This reasoning dictated how Boyle cast the film. ‘So we thought, right! I mean half of them have to be American because the cinematic market is the biggest here, and also because America in present day has done the most in space. Although the Russians argue about that. So we made half of it American and half of it Asian.’ [12]

The first actor Boyle approached was Michelle Yeoh. ‘Even while reading the script,’ he said, ‘I knew I wanted Michelle to be in the film.’ [13] He had seen Yeoh’s performances in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2001), and she had made a striking impression. He contacted Yeoh via her agent and offered her any role in the film that she wanted.
Michelle Yeoh was a Malaysian-born actor who had established her performing career in Hong Kong, where she featured in a string of hit action films including Magnificent Warriors (1987), Police Story 3: Supercop (1992) and The Heroic Trio (1993). Her casting as a Chinese secret agent in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies opened her career to an international audience, and she followed it up with a range of films including The Touch (2002) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). Yeoh was already a fan of Danny Boyle’s work and happily agreed to work with him, selecting the supporting role of the botanist Corazon.

‘Corazon is more like a maternal character,’ Yeoh explained, ‘because she is the provider, of oxygen and food. She’s lucky because she’s surrounded by greenery most of the time, compared to others who are listening to waves or turning knobs. Character-wise, she’s more spiritual; perhaps, it’s the Asian influence or that she’s always constantly surrounded by organic things – she’s very grounded and more down-to-earth.’ [14]

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Regarding Danny Boyle, Yeoh said: ‘If you look at his films you don’t know what to expect from him. There are so many zombie movies out there. So why did he make it different? Because he had an edge. So [Sunshine] is, yes, eight astronauts going up to save the world. We’ve heard that so many times before. You have to see it. It’s got an edge. I loved that the first week of filming he said to me, “You know this is not a family movie, right?” [I said,] “Danny, I know your films. It’s OK.”’ [15]

Sunshine also allowed Boyle to reunite with Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who had starred in 28 Days Later. ‘Doing the NASA research,’ Boyle said, ‘they wouldn’t send anyone on a long mission that was over 30, just because of illness. They wouldn’t take the risk. We all consider this idea of scientists that they look like Einstein but when we met Brian Cox here was this quite handsome young man who was a proper physicist, so I thought: “That’s OK, we can cast Cillian!’ [16]

Cillian Murphy was cast in the role of ship’s physicist Capa. ‘He’s a scientist,’ said Murphy, ‘who is into a level of physics that is way beyond normal comprehension and that does something to his mind in a way. He doesn’t have great people skills, though, which keeps him slightly removed from the rest of the crew.’ [17]

Murphy was happy to be working with Boyle again, on a film with such a dark, gritty edge to it. ‘There’s always that pressure,’ he said, ‘to deliver a very teen-orientated film, no matter what your story is. What I loved about Sunshine was that it wasn’t about being cool, or trying to make a hip film. It’s a much darker, deeper affair than that.’ [18] Cillian Murphy accepted the role of Capa despite an extremely busy personal schedule: he ultimately joined the cast for rehearsals two days after completing shooting on Ken Loach’s drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006).

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American actor Chris Evans was cast as ship’s engineer Mace. Evans had rapidly developed a high profile as one of Hollywood’s most promising new actors, through such films as Not Another Teen Movie (2001), The Perfect Score (2004), Cellular (2004) and The Fantastic Four (2005). ‘Mace hails from a military family and background,’ said Evans, ‘so he’s very cut and dry, and morally uncomplicated. He is the guy on board who is always able to perform under the most pressure-filled situations.’ [19]

Māori actor Cliff Curtis played Searle, the Icarus II’s psych officer. After early appearances in New Zealand films such as The Piano (1993) and Once Were Warriors (1994), Curtis transitioned into becoming a regular supporting player in Hollywood productions – often playing characters of Middle Eastern descent. He had co-starred in Three Kings (1999), The Insider (1999), Training Day (2001), Collateral Damage (2002), Whale Rider (2002) and Runaway Jury (2003). Regarding Searle, Curtis said: ‘I started off thinking of him as more of an esoteric person, but when I got into rehearsals I realised that wouldn’t be indulged, really. It’s a military and scientific mission and those are very serious purposes so I made him much more scientific and much more military in his approach to work. But he ends up in a place where he’s confronted by the duration and trying to understand the effects of the sun on the human psyche. It opens something in him and he’s delving into the deeper questions of life.’ [20]

One story element that did not survive to Sunshine’s shooting script was that the Icarus I launched without a psych officer. As the reason for that mission’s failure was theorised as being either technical or psychological, a psych officer was assigned to the Icarus II as a preventative measure.

When Boyle went looking for an actor to play the Icarus II’s captain, he soon settled upon Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada. ‘I saw him in Twilight Samurai,’ said Boyle, ‘in which he’s fantastic. He was recommended by Wong Kar-wai when we were looking for an Asian captain for the ship.’ [21] Boyle added: ‘He gives this extraordinary and majestic performance. When I met him I felt he had that kind of natural authority that makes people respect him automatically, which was crucial for the character.’ [22]

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Sanada was well known to viewers of Japanese cinema after starring in a string of popular and acclaimed films including Mahjong Horoki (1984), Ring (1998) and Twilight Samurai (2002). The versatile performer was also well regarded for his performances in the theatre – in 2002 he received an MBE for his contribution to Japanese and English theatre relations. Sanada said: “I was very surprised and glad that a distinguished director like Danny Boyle took an interest in me. I think the director sought unique aspects of a Japanese, such as the mind, aesthetics or self-devotion to that character.’ [23]

The first contribution Sanada made to the film was to change his character’s name Kanada to the more authentic Kaneda. He also worked with a dialogue coach to ensure his English was as clear and accurate as possible. ‘In Sunshine,’ he said, ‘the base is a British English, and if I disclose an official statement, I use proper official English, but when I talked with other crew members one-on-one, I used more friendly American English, taking into account the situation that Kaneda had trained at NASA.’ [24]

Australian actor Rose Byrne played Cassie, the Icarus II’s pilot. Danny Boyle cast her after seeing her play a small supporting role in Wolfgang Petersen’s epic Troy (2004). Troy Garity played Harvey, the ship’s first officer and communications expert. Garity had previously appeared in Bandits (2001), Barbershop (2002) and After the Sunset (2004). Benedict Wong played Trey, the ship’s navigator. The British actor had been nominated for a British Independent Film Award for his performance in Dirty Pretty Things (2002).

Each cast member was given a back story, written by Alex Garland, that only they got to see. There was one exception: as ship’s psych officer, Cliff Curtis got to read everyone’s back stories.

The final addition to the cast was Mark Strong as Pinbacker, the captain of the ill-fated Icarus I who makes an unexpected entrance into the film at the beginning of its third act. ‘Some people find that Pinbacker breaks the realism too much,’ said Boyle. ‘Which is fair enough, but I always love taking a huge risk in films where you risk everything by doing something that breaks the pattern. Like, there’s a bit in Trainspotting where Ewan goes down the toilet, and people used to say, “You’ll never get away with that. It’s ludicrous.” But, in fact, people love that moment. So that was always the plan, to take you and see how far we could stretch realism.’ [25]

To create Pinbacker’s horrific scarring, the make-up team studied the injuries of Formula 1 race driver Niki Lauda, who suffered significant burns to his head and face in a racetrack crash in 1976.

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To get the cast to start working together, and to develop a sense of what life on the Icarus II would be like, Danny Boyle booked them into group accommodation and forced them to live, sleep and cook together for two weeks. ‘It was only 12 days,’ said Rose Byrne, ‘and it was these tiny little quarters and there were eight of us. But I’m from a big family so for me it was fine because I’m used to chaos and lots of people around at close quarters and all that sort of stuff, and it was good because we bonded. What it did was make everyone at ease with each other. It broke the ice. And that is hard to do.’ [26]

Benedict Wong said: ‘We’d just hang out and cook for each other. We didn’t know each other and when that is thrust upon you, you have to generate that team dynamic and bond.’ [27]

‘When you are in a spaceship,’ said Michelle Yeoh, ‘these people do the same thing every day; there’s nothing else for them. We have to show you through the little moments that it is a struggle to be cut off from all other company except for the eight people. Boredom will kill you. It was very interesting, to learn how to be bored.’ [28]

The Icarus II cast were put through an extensive regimen of training in order to ensure they could play astronauts and scientists in a believable manner. ‘Danny flooded us with loads of information,’ said Wong. ‘We had lectures with the European Space Agency, lectures with physicists. We would go to an airfield and each of us would be in a two-seater airplane and experience 4G, where you are basically going 200mph straight up and the pressure is four times your weight. In a few seconds you are plummeting down at such a rate you’re floating in zero gravity.’ [29]

‘Danny did such a good job,’ said Evans, ‘of reminding us of how many layers there are to each character. I mean, even though we have issues that we have to deal with at hand – for example, if the captain is outside of the ship risking his life to make some emergency repairs – the undercurrent is: “You have been in space for 16 months, you’re going to save the world, you’re confronted with the fact that you might not come home.”’ [30]

Cillian Murphy consulted with Brian Cox on Cox’s particle physics work at CERN. ‘I didn’t really understand any of it but what I was looking for more was the essence of what it is, what having all this knowledge or being a physicist can do. So I tried to steal mannerisms off these guys and get a sense of how they function as humans.’ [31]

Rose Byrne was taken to Heathrow Airport, where she worked inside a Boeing 747 simulator.

Cast and crew were also treated to a range of film screenings to help them understand the style of film Boyle wished to make. Films screened included The Right Stuff, The Wages of Fear, Solaris, Alien and Dust Belt. Wolfgang Petersen’s submarine thriller Das Boot was particularly useful, according to director of photography Alwin Küchler: ‘That movie really helped us lock onto the idea of a very claustrophobic world and the tension that can arise when a group of people have to share a tight space for a long period of time.’ [32]

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After an eight-week period of rehearsal and research, Sunshine commenced a 15 week shoot inside London’s 3 Mill Studios. ‘It was four months and it was very intense,’ said Cillian Murphy. ‘You were on pretty much every day and the technical aspect of it was hard for a lot of us. There was so much stuff that hadn’t been done before so that meant a lot of sitting around… but when you came on you had to be totally energised and adrenalized. That’s hard to do when you’ve been sitting in your room for two hours!’ [33]

One of the greatest production challenges was working out how to present the sun. It was important to make the scale, brightness and heat of the sun as impactful as humanly possible.
Alwin Küchler explained: ‘If you were to take just a teaspoon of the material that makes up the Sun and place it on top of St Paul’s Cathedral, the whole of England would be vaporized. Imagine that scale and how you transfer that to celluloid.’ [34]

Boyle said: ‘We made the inside of the ship, we made everything non-orange or red. It sounds boring and trite, but it works, believe me. It’s an old, old trick: you rob the audience for maybe as long as 15 minutes, they don’t get … (reaches out to grab the hem of an interview participant’s red dress) … there’d be nothing like that allowed in the costume, nothing; everything had to be in the gray-green-blue range, and then you step outside and it’s like “Oh!” It’s like you’ve been without it, like you’ve been starved of it.’ [35]

The full power of the sun is never better expressed that in the film’s opening shot: what first appears to be the sun is actually its reflection, bouncing off the massive circular heat shield that protects the Icarus II. ‘I always had that image in my mind,’ said Boyle, ‘right from the first time he gave me the script. I think the opening of the script was basically described as a series of shots of the sun. But for some reason I always had in my mind this image, and I was absolutely determined to do it.’ He added: ‘There’s a great quote – I think David Lean first said it – that in the first five minutes of a movie you should reveal your ambitions, so that the audience know what they are going to be watching.’ [36]

To visually distinguish between interior and exterior sequences, Küchler used different film lenses: Hawk anamorphic lenses for inside the Icarus II and Zeiss Ultra and Master Primes to film scenes outside of the ship or in the observation room. ‘Mixing formats,’ he said, ‘enabled us to get horizontal flares in interiors and circular flares for all the scenes involving the sun. This was my first anamorphic shoot, and I tortured myself for three weeks over which lenses to choose, but in the end the Hawks won, mainly because we wanted to look different than Alien and Event Horizon.’ [37]

To differentiate the virtual reality environment of the Earth room (in which Mace experienced a wave crashing across a pier), 65mm film was used. The wave was generated by attached a camera to the top of a shipping container and then dropping that container into the nearby Thames River.

Küchler deliberately removed all flags and matte boxes from his cameras to ensure lens flares could occur as often as possible, giving the film a distinctive visual aesthetic. For key shots where Boyle wanted a specific lens flare, Küchler developed a system of low-voltage LED lights to generate them artificially. For the hallucinatory scenes of Captain Pinbacker, semi-transparent mirrors placed at a 45 degree angle enabled Boyle to shoot Mark Strong with two cameras from effectively identical angles. By using different lenses on each camera, the unearthly and blurry effect of Pinbacker could be created.

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One planned element of the production that had to be abandoned was the Icarus I. Sequences set onboard the older ship were intended to use duplicate sets constructed at a 90 degree angle, to indicate that the gravity on the ship had broken down. Due to the tight production budget, this plan was abandoned and instead the existing Icarus II sets were coated with dust and debris.

Sunshine presented a new challenge for Danny Boyle: computer-generated effects. While such effects had been used in several of his previous films, Sunshine required almost 500 digital effects to be created. Combined with the challenges of shooting the film inside a confined series of sets and finding fresh ways to present a science fiction story, it made Sunshine the most difficult shoot of Boyle’s career to date. ‘It’s almost impossible to make science fiction movies,’ he later admitted. ‘Sunshine drove me mad. It was insane. I’ve never made anything like it; doing something like Slumdog in Mumbai was a breeze compared to try to direct a science fiction movie for £20 million.’ [38]

Sunshine premiered in American cinemas on 20 July 2007 in limited release. The film then expanded to 461 theatres the following week. Box office was disastrously low: when playing in 10 cinemas the film grossed only $362,000 dollars in its first week. When expanded 46 times, box office expanded by only five times: $1.8 million dollars, placing it in 13th place in the box office charts. It was the highest place the film would rank. In its third week, Sunshine slipped to 22nd place, then 31st, 41st and 53rd. By the conclusion of its USA run, Sunshine had grossed only $3.6 million dollars in the USA.

The film performed more successfully in international markets. It grossed $6.4 million in the United Kingdom, $3.2 million in France, $2.8 million in Spain, $1.6 million in Japan and $1.6 million in Australia. In total, Sunshine grossed $32 million dollars worldwide, significantly below its $45 million dollar production budget.

While it was a commercial failure, Sunshine was – for a science fiction – critically very successful. In Sight & Sound, Henry K. Miller wrote: ‘By eliminating the disaster movie convention of giving doomsday an on-screen audience, as in the generically similar Armageddon (1998) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Sunshine removes the sickly screen-traversing sense of camaraderie in the face of catastrophe that – along with spectacle of cities being destroyed – forms a part of those films’ appeal.’ [39]

‘Where the film impresses most,’ wrote James Mottram, ‘is its tone and texture. Mark Tildesley’s production design is first rate, notably the look of Icarus II with its unusual shield-like front suggesting the team on board are like an army creeping inexorably towards the enemy.’ [40]

Film Comment’s Vivian Sobchack wrote that ‘while Sunshine certainly is no 2001: A Space Odyssey, its elegiac and terrible lyricism, its care for human life, its embrace of the unknown, and – most especially – its generative and annihilating blaze of a sun at which, without the light of cinema, we cannot stare directly, all shine in the mind’s eye long after one leaves the theatre.’ [41]

In Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote: ‘While the unfathomable burning brightness of the sun bathes the whole picture in flashes of cinematic dazzle, Boyle and his team ground the story in details chosen for their sophisticated, underplayed authenticity.’ [42]

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It is very sad that Sunshine failed to find its audience in cinemas, as it is a brilliantly realised and literate science fiction thriller. While Hollywood generates science fiction films every year, they are generally broadly conceived and populist. They often lack a strong sense of scientific accuracy or speculation, realism, or a richness of character and tone to underpin the visual effects. Sunshine is a product of the British film industry at its best: while produced for a much smaller production budget than its American competitors it is well acted by an international cast, cleverly written and beautifully shot.

Very few motion pictures have perfected a sense of the sheer agoraphobic emptiness of space. After all, it’s hard enough to accurately depict anything accurately in a narrative film. Depicting a specific absence of things would seem an order of magnitude more difficult. There are a few obvious examples of the scale of space on screen: Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), to name two. Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) achieves a wonderful sense of scale as well, despite its various creative faults.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most effective expressions of the scale of space is in a documentary. In David Sington’s 2007 film In the Shadow of the Moon, former astronaut Michael Collins gives a memorable explanation of just how overwhelmingly vast and frighteningly empty space is. It is a difficult concept to adequately express, and it’s a concept that science fiction cinema has regularly struggled to come to terms with.

Sunshine is, thankfully, one of the science fiction films that ‘gets’ space. The film features two key sequences beyond the safety of the Icarus II, and they are both tense, knuckle-tightening experiences. With Sunshine we are also provided with a second layer of tension. Beyond the vast, open emptiness of space there is also the Sun. It fills the screen with a scale that at times is genuinely frightening. It dwarfs the Icarus II, and looms over the film in a way that almost makes it another character in the story.

The visual representation of space in Sunshine is not scientifically accurate, but then in no science fiction film I can think does that accuracy exist. Taking about the appearance of stars in all of the space scenes, Boyle remarked ‘All these fucking films… it’s bollocks. It’s like daylight here; you’ve got a big light source and you can’t see anything else, there’s no other light sources; you can only see them at night.’ [43]

Attempts to realistically depict space failed on a narrative level. ‘We did the first CG shot of the ship,’ said Boyle, ‘and there’s no star field – the problem is, you can’t see the ship moving! It looks like it’s stopped! And you think “Why has it stopped, so early in the film? Has something gone wrong this early in the film?” And that’s why there’s a star field in every space movie you see – because it’s the only way of suggesting motion in a vacuum like that.’ [44]

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Sunshine is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) in how it treats its ensemble cast. Like that film, the order in which the characters die is not easily predicted. Captain Kaneda, as the calm authority figure, dies first: this leaves the remainder of the crew to collapse into in-fighting and group panic.

Searle becomes increasingly obsessed with viewing the sun from the Icarus II observation deck, and by midway through the film his skin is already burning and peeling. He provides a valuable link between the rational Icarus II crew and the completely unbalanced Pinbacker, whose whole body has burned into a mass of scar tissue. The sun, according to Sunshine, will turn you insane.

This shift from a rational scientific world into insanity is clearly expressed within the film. By the time Pinbacker’s presence on the Icarus II is revealed, Sunshine has shifted gears from objective science fiction to specifically subjective horror. The final act of Sunshine has a tendency to lose a lot of viewers or, at least, disappoint them somewhat with its strange and sudden shift in tone. Pinbacker clearly believes he is divinely inspired and supernatural. Boyle has shot and edited his film in such a way that, on the first viewing at least, it can be confusing whether or not Pinbacker is correct. Much of the climax appears to emulate Paul W.S. Anderson’s science fiction film Event Horizon (1997), although while that film contained an explicit shift from one genre to another, Sunshine simply feels that way.

The film sharply divides its characters into those who remain in emotional control and prioritise the mission, and those who can’t emotionally handle the trauma. On the one side there are those like Capa and Mace who, despite their dislike for one another, put the mission first at all times. Then there are those like Trey, who suffers a breakdown due to making a fatal miscalculation, Searle, who grows increasingly obsessed with the sun, or Cassie, who refuses to condemn Trey despite the fate of the Earth being at stake. In that key sequence, the surviving crew sit down and take a vote over whether or not to murder Trey in order to conserve their rapidly depleting oxygen supplies. ‘I remember when Alex Garland wrote that,’ said Boyle, ‘because I said to him “we need a vote scene, you know”, because they talk about voting earlier, and the guy says “we’re not going to vote, we’re experts”, and I said to him “let’s have a vote scene later on”. I was imagining a visual scene where people put their hand up and all those kind of things. And then he wrote this incredible scene where they just talk about “shall we kill someone” and it’s a brilliant sequence.’ [45]

Boyle consulted Brian Cox over the tense sequence, to determine whether or not such a conversation would actually take place. Boyle said: ‘he is very cold-hearted about those odds. He said “those are the odds. You vote, you kill that person, that’s how it works”.’ [46]

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Sunshine’s greatest achievement is, arguably, its characters. A combination of writing, direction and acting has created a group of very believable, interesting people without a single standout or with any one actor letting the rest of the ensemble down. It’s notable how many of the cast – Rose Byrne, Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Mark Strong – have become relatively famous names after appearing in this film. The cast of characters is also somewhat unusual. It’s a general conceit of the genre that only one or two members of the crew are likely to survive the film, whether it’s Ripley in Alien or McCready and Childs at the end of The Thing. In Sunshine, while the mission may succeed, nobody survives. With the exception of Capa’s sister and her children in a small cameo, not a single character introduced in the movie survives to see it end. It is a rather bleak film, all things considered.

One final element of Sunshine that really pulls the whole film together is the musical score. Danny Boyle sent a rough cut of the film to pop group Underworld, and they improvised an electronic soundtrack to accompany it. That soundtrack was then forwarded to orchestral composer John Murphy, who incorporated the music into a fully composed and orchestrated score. The film’s key melody, “Adagio in D Minor”, has become a regular accompaniment to theatrical trailers and advertisements worldwide, including trailers for Blindness, The Adjustment Bureau, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Walking Dead and Fringe.

Despite the numerous strengths of Sunshine, it seems unlikely that Danny Boyle will return to direct another science fiction film in the future. ‘You realise afterwards,’ he once said, ‘that directors don’t go back into space unless they are contractually obliged to do so. They never go back because it just kills you. It’s weird but I think it’s partly because the standard set by previous films, the masterpieces, are so high that you have to meet that standard, you have to get there somehow and it’s fucking exhausting getting there because you’re pushing everyone to get there.’ [47]

When writing on an Empire magazine web chat, Boyle was somewhat more direct: ‘I will die before I return to sci-fi.’ [48]

REFERENCES

  1. David Richardson, “Here comes the sun”, Film Review #85, August 2007.
  2. Richardson, 2007.
  3. Rob Carnevale, “Sunshine – Danny Boyle interview”, Indie London, August 2007.
  4. Carnevale, 2007.
  5. Michael James Allen, “An interview with Danny Boyle”, Lumino, 23 July 2007.
  6. Jay Holben, “Let there be light”, American Cinematographer, August 2007.
  7. Faisal Latif, “Interview: Danny Boyle”, Pure Movies, 9 June 2008.
  8. Patrick Barkham, “The sun is the star”, The Guardian, 23 March 2007.
  9. Jon Keighren, “Manchester scientist helps bring Sunshine to the big screen”, Innovations Report, 27 March 2007.
  10. Richardson, 2007.
  11. Allen, 2007.
  12. Allen, 2007.
  13. Quoted in Sunshine production notes, 20th Century Fox, 2007.
  14. Mumtaj Begum, “To infinity and beyond”, The Star Online, 13 April 2007.
  15. Quoted in “Interview: Michelle Yeoh”, Sci-Fi Wire, http://www.syfy.com/scifiwire2005/index.php?category=0&id=33343&type=0 (Accessed 5 June 2012.)
  16. Carnevale, 2007.
  17. Quoted in Sunshine production notes, 20th Century Fox, 2007.
  18. Paul Byrne, “Little Mister Sunshine”, Event Guide, April 2007.
  19. 20th Century Fox, 2007.
  20. Chris Hewitt, “Cliff Curtis takes a trip to see the sunshine with RT”, Rotten Tomatoes, 17 September 2007.
  21. Quoted in “The Danny Boyle webchat script”, Empire Online, 5 April 2007.
  22. 20th Century Fox, 2007.
  23. Noriko Nakamura, “Hiroyuki Sanada gets his day in the sun”, Asahi Weekly, 22 April 2007.
  24. Nakamura, 2007.
  25. Allen, 2007.
  26. Jack Foley, “Sunshine – Rose Byrne interview”, Indie London, April 2007.
  27. Richardson, 2007.
  28. Begum, 2007.
  29. Richardson, 2007.
  30. Jack Foley, “Sunshine – Chris Evans interview”, Indie London, Indie London, April 2007.
  31. Rick Fulton, “Danny’s new golden boy”, Daily Record, 30 March 2007.
  32. Holben, 2007.
  33. Jack Foley, “Sunshine – Cillian Murphy interview”, Indie London, April 2007.
  34. 20th Century Fox, 2007.
  35. James Rocchi, “Roundtable interview: Sunshine director Danny Boyle”, Moviefone, 19 July 2007.
  36. Richardson, 2007.
  37. Holben, 2007.
  38. Amy Raphael, Danny Boyle: In His Own Words, Faber & Faber, London, 2010.
  39. Henry K. Miller, “Sunshine”, Sight & Sound, April 2007.
  40. James Mottram, “Sunshine”, Film Review Special #69, 2008.
  41. Vivian Sobchack, “Burnt by the sun”, Film Comment, July-August 2007.
  42. Lisa Schwarzbaum, “Sunshine”, Entertainment Weekly, 18 July 2007.
  43. Rocchi, 2007.
  44. Rocchi, 2007.
  45. Ben Rawson-Jones, “Sunshine director Danny Boyle”, Digital Spy, 5 April 2007.
  46. Ben Rawson-Jones, 5 April 2007.
  47. Carnevale, 2007.
  48. Empire Online, 2007.

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