Films can have many layers of meaning. Some can be as simple as the effective use of imagery to convey a metaphor, but other films can look like one thing to a casual viewer and be something completely different to those who are paying attention. Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, for instance, is a fairly straightforward movie about a young woman cursed by an old gypsy, but it also contains imagery that hints that it’s actually all a metaphor for the main character’s eating disorder. The Shining has been subject to many different interpretations; one of the most interesting is the theory that it’s full of images about violence against Native Americans.
Films like these can end up creating a very polarized audience, depending on what the viewers see, and can also result in movies being cast aside or misunderstood. One of my favourite movies, 2007’s Sunshine, is one such film. Sunshine is set approximately 50 years in our future, when the sun is dying and threatening the future of all life on Earth. A ship is dispatched carrying a gigantic nuclear device which is to be injected into the sun to reignite it. The crew is a small team of astronauts and physicists, who are literally Earth’s last hope for survival; their payload, aboard the Icarus II, is a replacement for the first ship, which mysteriously disappeared seven years earlier without successfully reigniting the sun. While attempting to retrieve the abandoned Icarus I, several mistakes are made, and the crew find themselves fighting for their lives as well as trying to complete the mission.
If you’ve heard anything negative about the film, it’s likely that you’ve heard about that final angle; many critics have blasted the third act for turning the entire exercise into a slasher movie in space. This conclusion calls to mind the nonsense physics of Armageddon and The Core, melodramatic raised stakes and dumb character deaths by a slasher villain whose plot twist reveals are obviously shoehorned in at the last minute. We’ve all seen these movies, and they’re big, dumb and noisy, though sometimes a fun way to spend two hours.
But Sunshine is not that kind of film.
Without wishing to spoil too much, I implore all those who have disparaged Sunshine to give it a second chance, but to do so from the right frame of mind. Sunshine isn’t a hard science fiction film, and it falls apart when considered as such; but pay attention and you’ll find that there’s a brutally effective meditation on the relationship between humans and God—a stunningly realistic thought experiment about the actual consequences of approaching and interacting with something that defies logic and stretches the limits of human comprehension. The sun, in Sunshine, is a singularity; it is the point where math and physics break down, where our ability to know anything just stops. The appearance of the much-maligned killer in the third act is far from abrupt; Sunshine is about how humans relate to the divine, and the villain is the extremist—he has become so overwhelmed by his proximity to the sun that he has rejected his own humanity, unable to reconcile his reality and the truths outside of it. And while the members of the crew do die off one by one, every single one of their decisions makes sense in the context of their situation.
It may seem far-fetched, but I believe this meditative tone is exactly what director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland were going for, and the proof is in the cinematography. The camera lingers on a close-up of a man’s eye as he views the sun up close, in a shot that is distinctly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. One character quietly descends into self-destructive addiction—starting down the path towards extremism—but the only clues are in his increasingly tanned skin. Another sacrifices himself by volunteering, in a sense, to go to Hell.
At the end of the day, watching a film is an immensely subjective experience; no one can tell you what to like or dislike. But Sunshine’s fate was not deserved. It was released at around the same time as The Core, a similarly themed sci-fi film that was much less intelligent, and the two got lumped together. While Sunshine did get good reviews, it wasn’t a box-office hit. To this day, I encounter people who dismiss it as a dumb slasher movie, and I always beg them to re-watch it and reconsider. When you view Sunshine as a meditative piece about the limits of human comprehension, in the vein of 2001 or Solaris, the result is devastatingly powerful. It’s bleak and tragic, but also beautiful and strangely comforting; to understand this, all you have to do is see it.