What Do You See?: Danny Boyle’s Vexing Sunshine

Special Guest Writer

Steve Hawco


I often find it ironic that British director Danny Boyle has done so well critically over the last few years. Looking at his films and his personality, one can see his undeniable love for the cinema. Beginning with 1996’s raunchy Trainspotting, his first film to be well-known worldwide, I have enjoyed, if not loved, almost every film he has given to us. His ability to successfully approach radically different genres, from Horror in 28 Days Later (2002) to Comedy in Trainspotting, is a testament to his directing chops.

However, one aspect of his directing in which he rarely varies is his visual style, and it is in this that Boyle leaves himself open to criticism from the film establishment. Boyle’s style is of the MTV generation; he employs quick cutting, extreme camera movement and compositions, and pop music all throughout his movies. In other words, his films are put together a lot like music videos. This is too shallow for the pretentious of today’s critics, who demand slower, more pensive filmmaking if they are to declare a movie anything more than competent entertainment.

These critics were unhappy with Slumdog Millionaire‘s Best Picture win at the Oscars in 2008 and were no doubt just as upset that this montage director won for Best Director. But the film even more deserving of these accolades was 2007’s Sunshine, Boyle’s fabulous flight into the rickety world of serious science fiction. Sadly, this UK production never got the distribution of Slumdog in the US, and it never got the attention, good or bad, of the world.

Sunshine is serious sci-fi and serious filmmaking to the extreme. It is not fantasy, but what I would call realistic sci-fi, like 2001 before it. It tells the story of eight astronauts of the future, Earth’s last best hope, as they fly towards our dying sun in an attempt to re-ignite its fires so that humanity does not perish in an endless winter. Their payload is a huge stellar bomb, with a mass equal to that of Manhattan Island, to which their living quarters are strapped. The front of this ship, Icarus II, is a huge, circular shield, the only thing that protects the heroes and the payload from the merciless light and heat of humanity’s star. After the obligatory distress signal, in this case from their long-lost predecessors on the missing Icarus I, things begin to go wrong and lives are lost. The most basic question the film raises is whether or not our protagonists will choose to fight until the end, in the face of death, to save the homes and loved ones they left behind.


Does anyone know how to change the channel?

But the film raises other questions too, and they all radiate from the same source: the sun, towards which the astronauts are flying. It grows bigger and brighter in the view port every day; it seems to drive mad those of the crew who gaze into it. So what is Sunshine really about? It is, perhaps, most enjoyable to view it as the aforementioned adventure story of perseverance, bravery, and self-sacrifice. But is it not about the quest for truth, and the horrors involved in knowing the whole truth about life and existence, as embodied in the madness of those who look into our source of light? The light of the sun functions as a metaphor for the cinema itself, as the very movie screen in a darkened theater (or living room) lights up the area and the faces of the audience, like the sun itself, more than once during Sunshine’s run time. Is Boyle sending a ship to re-ignite the flame of world cinema?

Sunshine can be all these things, but after all the flashy sizzling it Boyles down to an atheistic morality play. The sun is the face of God, the god that Boyle does not in reality believe in, and the humans aboard Icarus must make a choice, to either defy His will with their science and technology, to preserve humanity past His desired extinction, or to embrace His will as final and give up. The crew’s physicist, Capa (Cillian Murphy), is fully aware of the weight of this choice by the film’s end. So is another character, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), but his decision counters Capa’s, and thus the film is plunged into its much-maligned and misunderstood climax, in which the monster-like Pinbacker chases the crew around to kill them and prevent the mission’s success. It is the central theme of the sun representing God that creates this situation, and therefore the alleged tonal shift into Horror is justified.

So, while containing a compelling story, is the film better or worse for Boyle’s directing style? Sunshine looks and sounds wonderful, fully modern in its

The Beautiful Struggle

special effects, fully convincing in its production values, and fully moving in the music video moments that Boyle creates. It has one of my favorite montages in the history of cinema, a section I myself call “The Beautiful Struggle,” as Capa continues, alone, to stumble towards his goal in a clumsy zero gravity suit, while the theme song “Surface of the Sun” from composer John Murphy blares. The story could have been told by anyone, but only Danny Boyle would tell it like this. His ability to move the audience through the use of montage, of images edited in conjunction with sound and music, is unrivaled.

The stars shine bright in Sunshine, not just Murphy, but Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai) as the captain, Kaneda, and Chris Evans (Captain America: The First Avenger) in his best film performance as tough pilot Mace. The music by John Murphy and the band Underworld is beautiful. The art direction, and the thought put into the science and space travel, is astounding. This film is my favorite by Boyle, a director who always holds my respect., truly buried cinema, I believe it to be one of the ten best films of the last decade, though it probably wouldn’t appear even in the top 50 of most popular critics. Nevertheless, Sunshine is radiant.


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2 thoughts on “What Do You See?: Danny Boyle’s Vexing Sunshine

  1. Ouch a harsh response, but not one that isn’t well documented. You point out all the char acters flaws, which to some extent make them human. I think especially the navigators mistake. One or two of these might be accounted for, but you have a point that their countless mistakes take away from them as characters.

    This is a constant problem with sci-fiction though, unless you have aliens or a sentient computer were does the conflict come from. It has to be internally generated between the crew. It would be more frustrating if they didn’t acknowledge these mistakes, but they do. Although you’re right the death of the captain seems an unwarranted and forced plot device.

    Me personally, I don’t mind when characters on the screen make mistakes. It seems silly, but could we say in the same situation we wouldn’t. I mean can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to blow up the sun and miss.

  2. The problem with “Sunshine” is that not for a second do the crew of the Icarus II act like competent, intelligent, professional men and women. Call “space crazy” all you want, but the fact is this: writer Alex Garland uses every cheap trick in the book to set them up to fail. The captain passes off vital command decisions. The navigator fudges a course change, for no good reason. The mechanic, who ought to just suit up and fix the damn shield already (fixing things would be his job, right?), bullies the captain into making the crew’s one irreplaceable member go out on said dangerous repair job. Oh, and then, for the pointless sake of poignancy, the captain goes out, too… instead of telling the mechanic to do his job. The physicist suggests they stop to pick up a second massive solar bomb, thereby scuttling any, oh I don’t know, PLANNING that might have gone into this impossibly vital mission. And how was he planning to pick up that second bomb anyway…?
    Yes, “Sunshine” sounds and looks very pretty. The cast act their hearts out. But with Garland writing them as morons one and all (and with Boyle letting him), it is, in the end, “Dumb and Dumber in Space.” Sorry, but this dud was rightfully buried.

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