Help me understand Danny Boyle's "Sunshine"
October 12, 2010 4:56 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand the metaphor behind the "monster" in Danny Boyle's "Sunshine." I found this a stunning film, but the appearance of the "zombie" took my experience off-track and genre-shifted it. I understand that this was a significant element, but why? And what does it signify (for you?) I watched it years ago, and it's still bugging me!
posted by andreinla to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: And, just for the record, the Sun / Source as a drug I totally get... reminded me of Stars of the Lid's Sun Drugs
posted by andreinla at 5:00 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

When you say zombie are you talking about Pinbacker, the captain of the first Icarus ship?
posted by Justinian at 5:19 PM on October 12, 2010

I am pretty sure zombie Pinbacker represents Danny Boyle's premature desire to remake Jason X.

That was the only reason to bring that whole segment in I could think of then, and it is the only thing I can think of now.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 5:20 PM on October 12, 2010

The monster is us. People. Humans. We are imperfect creatures constantly reaching out to the divine, the sun, the giver of life. Capa achieves divinity, becoming one with the sun, only by self-sacrifice, lifting himself above his laconic cynicism and mere humanity.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:21 PM on October 12, 2010

Danny Boyle's subconscious urge to ruin the movie, I think...
posted by gonna get a dog at 5:22 PM on October 12, 2010 [19 favorites]

Which is to say that Pinbacker represents how humans can fail along the way to achieving divinity.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:22 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pinbacker is the negative side of belief, personified and taken to extremes.

But yeah, it was poorly done.
posted by nomadicink at 5:28 PM on October 12, 2010

Or he's blind faith or man's corruption of the divine and life itself.

Good soundtrack though.
posted by nomadicink at 5:30 PM on October 12, 2010

I thought that he was what was left of us when we burned our humanity away.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:30 PM on October 12, 2010

Maybe this will help: In Defense of Sunshine.
posted by AlsoMike at 5:59 PM on October 12, 2010 [6 favorites]

> Boyle turned an otherwise stunning film into a made-for-SyFy cheapie in the third act. I find it hard to believe the monster is a metaphor for anything.

This is exactly right. The simplest explanation is the best one, and this is it.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:46 PM on October 12, 2010

Maybe this will help: In Defense of Sunshine.

Neat, that views Capa as true believer, or a person with faith. But it's faith on a human scale, a belief in his own abilities and the laws of science. Note that he goes to his death willingly and perhaps a bit of anticipation.
posted by nomadicink at 6:50 PM on October 12, 2010

Pinbacker could also be the sun's sentinel, protecting the slow fade from the intervention of weak humans. The only way for Capa to succeed was to confront the sun itself, first in human form and then in a spiritual fire.

There are a lot of possible reads, but having someone who was directly under the influence of the sun, almost a personified violence of the star, added a lot of complexity to possible interpretations.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 6:58 PM on October 12, 2010

You may find sympathy with Quentin Tarantino's video review and appreciation of Sunshine.
posted by artlung at 7:18 PM on October 12, 2010 [7 favorites]

Pinbacker lost all hope. He lost all desire for intervention. He lost all desire to save humanity. He lost all desire to deviate from nature, from the fading sun. He grew so close to the brilliance of the fading sun, that he became mad, becoming just as much of an obstacle to humanity's mission as the unthinking elements around him.

Just as the crew of the Icarus 2 bravely sacrifice themselves in order to reignite the sun and save Earth, Pinbacker has decided that his mission is to bravely let the sun fade as nature has intended.

I'm one of the few people who liked the Pinbacker resolution, by the by.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:48 PM on October 12, 2010

This movie has several strange inconsistencies that make it hard to interpret: the crew of Icarus 2 represents atheism, and the sun stands for God, but this is a dying god who is resurrected and humanity is saved through sacrifice, which has obvious connections to Christ. This sounds quite close to Death of God theology: Christians who believe that Christ's death on the cross signaled the literal death of God, that it meant God was saying "You're on your own, I can't give you the answers any more." In other words, Christianity is fundamentally atheistic.

On the other hand, Pinbacker's religion is nothing like Christianity, it's much closer to a kind of pseudo-Taoist nature mysticism or maybe modern deep ecology, where nature is a balanced, holistic totality that is disrupted by human technological hubris. Maybe you can read this film almost like Star Wars: A New Hope told from the perspective of the Empire - Icarus 2 is the Death Star, a machine capable of disrupting nature, Pinbacker is a Jedi in tune with the mystical energies of nature and attempts to destroy it, but in this telling the Death Star is saved at the last moment.
posted by AlsoMike at 8:47 PM on October 12, 2010

The only thing it signified for me was the director/writer wanting to raise the stakes in the third act and having painted themselves into a corner regarding elements that could raise tension. Most of the crew was already dead, the ships were already as broken as they were going to get, and the movie barely even paid attention to Earth, so what else could be thrown in to stand in the way of the mission?
posted by greenland at 10:10 PM on October 12, 2010

Thanks for that link, artlung: I am completely with Tarantino on this one, and think any attempt to try and vindicate the third act of Sunshine in relation to what precedes it does the whole thing a disservice, and is headed off on the path of fanwank.

Sometimes you just have to say "failure of vision" or "painted itself into a corner", or, if you like, "narrative disjunction based upon the compulsion to deliver something frantic towards the end". (Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman do something similar -- although with explicit and self-conscious artifice -- in the third act trainwreck of Adaptation, a film that I deeply dislike.) So even granting a metaphorical role to Pinbacker -- perhaps with an eye to Brando's Kurtz -- doesn't get past the overwhelmingly functional role, which is Scary Killer Monster.

I'm well past the "well-wrought urn" approach of interpreting creative works as integrated, coherent entities. This is especially true of cinema, given the massively collaborative way movies are made; while failure is an orphan, flawed films have many progenitors.
posted by holgate at 11:19 PM on October 12, 2010

Wow, yeah, as much as I like Tarantino films I'd love him to take up a side job as a film critic. I think he is spot on.
posted by Justinian at 12:24 AM on October 13, 2010

This is what I call Danny Boyle's Third Act Problem, mostly applied to his SF/horror work.

Think about it.

28 Days Later:
Eerie opening > stunning visuals of abandoned London > Deep questions about survival and civilisation > THIRD ACT: MACHINE GUNS, SOLDIERS, EXPLOSIONS, HAUNTED HOUSE THUNDER AND LIGHTNING.

Eerie opening > stunning visuals of Icarus 2 > Deep questions about survival and isolation > THIRD ACT: CRAZY ZOMBIE GOES NUTS, NEARLY EVERYONE DIES, REALITY LITERALLY TURNED ON ITS HEAD (several times).

Shallow Grave:
Amusing character drama > unsettling murder > deeply creepy interludes > EVERYONE GOES NUTS, GETS STABBED (although I'd argue this works better as the whole idea is that large sums of money make people go nuts).

Danny Boyle does a lot of what can be charitably called 'tonal shifts' in his work, but which I believe are a combination of studio pressure, his own lack of faith in his ability to carry the deeper implications of the first 2/3rds of his SF/horror works through the whole film and working with Alex Garland, whose books and scripts follow the eerie > uneasy > thought provoking > BATSHIT CRAZY arc nearly universally.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:13 AM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, I saw Tarantino's review. It's Tarantino's opinion which is incredibly educated, analytical and limited to Tarantino's viewpoint.

I guess it's hard for me to let go of my trust in Danny Boyle knowing what he's doing and being intentional about it. The first 2 acts of the movie support that trust. Or maybe I'm in denial around seeing a masterpiece similar to Kubrick's 2001 suddenly (d)evolve into a slasher film.

I guess I could watch it again, but I am not sure I can continue long after the introduction of Pinbacker.

Here are some Pinbacker quotes from IMDB:

Pinbacker: Are you an angel? Has the time come? I've been waiting so long.

Capa: My God... my God. Pinbacker!
Pinbacker: Not your God. Mine!

Pinbacker: For seven years I spoke with God. He told me to take us all to Heaven.

Pinbacker: I am Pinbacker, Commander of the Icarus One. We have abandoned our mission. Our star is dying. All our science. All our hopes, our... our dreams, are foolish! In the face of this, we are dust, nothing more. Unto this dust, we return. When he chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God.
Mace: Okay, that make sense to anyone?

Pinbacker: At the end of time, a moment will come when just one man remains. Then the moment will pass. Man will be gone. There will be nothing to show that we were ever here... but stardust.

Pinbacker: One man alone with God.

Pinbacker: The last man, alone with God.

So, reading everything on this page, and these quotes, I sense that he's possessed by a specific kind of madness. The fact that he was given so much control over the plot makes me think that the creators of the film wanted to show what the force driving him does to humans, human intentions, and how.

It was clear that the Sun portrayed God, Source. Being with the Sun was an intense experience and I am grateful to Boyle for conveying this so well. Merging with the sun / God was worth one's life.

My limited understanding of Pinbacker was that he was exposed to the Sun long enough to change into something strange and unseen before as no human had the opportunity to get so close for so long.

I also see the destructive force driving him being the same as we see in organized religions insisting with the passion and blindness of 6 year olds "My God, not yours, Mine!" and the consequences of that.

And, at the end, I saw Capa "merging" with "God" consciously and intentionally, a completely different experience.

Watching Pinbacker slaughter the astronauts was extremely painful and uncomfortable for me. I imagine that if this pain was intentionally inflicted by the filmmakers, it would signify something important, like the merciless deeds of the inquisition and other religious atrocities.

As for "God's will" ("let me fade away without disturbance") being channeled through Pinbacker, I think that it was equally channeled through Capa. Pinbacker was an expression of being stuck close to "God" but being unable to experience it, thus acting from a place of separation, jealousy and control. Yes, he feels its scale and the qualities but he does not experience his own divinity, thus remains an agent of separation (which is the premise of many organized religion).

Obviously this is my reading and my opinion. What's important for me is the sense of closure.

Oh, and if you enjoyed this, you'll probably enjoy "Moon."
posted by andreinla at 10:47 AM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: OK, here's my friend Mark's answer:

Sunshine in a nutshell:

Because the universe is crazy awesome, you might make the mistake
of confusing it for God. But science wins in the end and it's all just
astrophysics and atoms, proving that man actually does have the ability
to make the universe bend to his will. By the way, religion is misguided,
dangerous, and if unchecked will lead to the madness that will extinguish
any hope for man's survival in this godless universe.

Unfortunately, this is a humanist context, not a trans-human context.
Not that I'm an atheist, but I don't need to be beat over the head about the
failings of religion - I AGREE.

The hope of Sunshine was that it was tapping into the same
metaphysical and ultra-human context that drove 2001 to
its glorious and cryptic conclusion. The first two acts of Sunshine
expertly set us up for a mind-blowing, juicy, transcendental
experience, but by the third act we have been fooled into a much
less satisfying diatribe about good, evil, and the bipolar nature of
religious zealotry.

The beauty and genius of 2001 is that it left us in awestruck wonder
about our relationship to the cosmos that will resonate for the rest of
our lives, while the sum effect of Sunshine leaves us confused and
wondering about the filmmakers' motives for dragging a brilliant cosmic
context into mere human pathos.

I'd like to see an alternate ending produced for this movie.

(I'm not going to pay $5 to post on Metafilter)
posted by andreinla at 1:51 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

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