Sunshine: A Movie About Killing God

Our sun is dying. The earth has frozen over. In the not the distant future, one solar-powered vessel loaded with the last of the planet’s resources is sent to spark a new sun out of the old and begin the dawn of a new age for humanity. Its crew’s quest diverts when they receive a distress beacon from the vessel in the failed first iteration of their mission. The crew, fighting for their survival as individuals and as a species, will not realize their parts in a metaphorical play about their science, once and for all, defeating all the religions of old that have lived in the hearts of humanity as long as this sun has given them warmth.

Underappreciated upon release, Sunshine balances a typical science fiction “big philosophy” veneer in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey with Alien-like enclosed slasher elements. What emerges is a survival story against cosmic horror as the crew uses every bit of scientific means they have to complete their mission. Everything that can go wrong does, and the harshness starts to feel personal; it’s as if the sun doesn’t want to be reborn by their hand. By the time an actual self-proclaimed prophet appears to kill our heroes in the name of his religious devotion to the sun’s destruction, the metaphor becomes clear; science is duking it out with deity.

This reading of themes isn’t just throwing meaning into some schlock not asking for it; it’s barely subtextual. The name of the ship(s)? “Icarus”,” in reference to the Greek myth of a boy flying too close to the sun. If anything the script too obviously broadcasts its themes, such as a moment in which the prophet proclaims in an allusion to Genesis that the pillars of ash that were once his crew have come from dust and will return to it.

Perhaps this film has gone so overlooked because of how well it functions without thinking too hard about the themes until its last act. This amazing cast (which includes Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, Rose Burn, Mark Strong, and Hiroyuki Sanada) is grounded in the reality of their situation; other than the villain, nobody is making grand statements about their place in the universe. They’re scared, they’re alone, and they just want humanity to survive. Even director Danny Boyle’s absolutely stunning cinematography doesn’t push too hard for the themes to become apparent, but rather focuses on showcasing the status of the ship and the emotional placement of the crew.

It is only in the last act that this changes and loses the audiences of 2007. The camera stays with Cillian Murphy’s Capa and certainly takes a subjective emotional approach to his struggle, but from its surreal near-experimental choices, it’s clear that he’s starting to understand his place in the narrative. He knows that his survival is no longer about his personal fight for life, but the fight for the human race. His mind is filled with apocalyptic musings from the villain as he tries to save the world from that man. The movie doesn’t betray itself in that last act by trying to be something it’s not but rather it gets to its thematic climax from the perspective of someone who understands what that means.

This story fits as a neat myth when placed in the context of the early 21st century. Plagued by threats of global destruction but in a postmodern society rebelling against organized religion, it’s fashionable to think of the enemy as a deity who has condemned you individually to life and inevitable death. Sunshine proclaims salvation comes from altruistic, numeric sacrifices made for the survival of as many as possible in order to master evolution. To defeat the apocalypse brought on by omnipotence, the Icarus’ crew proves their transcendence above the need for mercy from destiny and forges their own path to living, even if it means dying.

Ahead of thematic trends it may have helped shape, Sunshine is an immaculately crafted piece of inspirational atheism that supposes morality can exist outside of God. Unfortunately for humanity, it deserves respect as an essential piece of 2000s science fiction cinema for this caustic viewpoint; you can draw a direct line from this to 2022’s Everything Everywhere All At Once which takes this viewpoint to the multiverse (and steals Michelle Yeoh along with it). Viewers take for granted the death of religion in all forms of art and crown either artistry itself or science a victor. In fact, you could say that all of modern-day cinema is walking on Sunshine.

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