Movie Review: Sunshine

Yesterday I watched the movie Sunshine (2007). The basic premise is that the sun is dying (and that in only the year 2057! Though apparently there’s an unstated backstory that makes it slightly more plausible, though it’s still scientifically inaccurate), and humanity has to to try restart it. There was a failed attempt seven years ago to deliver a giant fusion bomb to the sun which would somehow fix it, but the spaceship Icarus I mysteriously disappeared, and now they’re launching the Icarus II to try again.

Such is the situation at the start of the movie. We see the eight crew members of the Icarus II, their differing personalities, and what it’s like for them to live isolated on a spaceship for over sixteen months with the fate of humanity resting on their shoulders. So far, so good. This is probably the best part of the movie, actually.

Then our heroes receive a distress beacon from the Icarus I, which has apparently not been destroyed, it’s just sitting out in space somewhere between Mercury’s orbit and the Sun. How this is possible, given that the sun has gravity and would suck the Icarus I right in unless it were in orbit, in which case they’d have really no way of pinpointing the location of the Icarus I in the first place. I might add here that apparently they plan (at first, anyway) to return alive from this mission, after going to the very surface of the sun. It doesn’t make much scientific sense – thus the merit of the movie is determined by whether the psychological insights it has are enough to excuse its scientific inanities.

Anyway, they then try to reach the Icarus I, stuff goes wrong, someone dies due to mistakes in calculations, they they reach the Icarus I but find nothing useful. They do, however, discover that the original reason the Icarus I failed was not machine or human error, but rather sabotage.

The movie goes downhill from here; the man who sabotaged the Icarus I (because he thought it was against the will of God) sneaks on board the Icarus II, kills some people, and tries to sabotage it, barely failing, and the entire crew burns to death as the Icarus II manages to restart the sun.

The most interesting thing about this second half is how scientific progress – restarting the sun – is contrasted with the crazy captain’s religious belief that God wants the sun to die, and it would be hubristic of mankind to try to restart it anyway. Specifically, I found interesting how it contrasts with the dying sun in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. There, religious belief is in fact centered on the idea that some day, the Conciliator will return and bring the New Sun, healing the world in the process, and this hopeful attitude is in contrast to the attitude of the established powers, who don’t want the New Sun to come because it will destroy the current order and bring chaos  – the new sun, when it finally arrives, raises the ocean levels greatly and thus drowns a great part of humanity.

Why would restarting the sun be opposed by religion in one of these worlds and supported by religion in another? The answer, I think, is in how the sun began to die in the first place. In the Book of the New Sun, the dying sun is a result of the natural decay of the star – the book takes place millions of years in the future, and the sun has been in its current state of decay for as long as anyone can remember. Sunshine, in contrast, is set in 2057; the sun would have been in full health as recently as 50 years ago, and its apparent death is brought about by a somewhat incomprehensible force. It is not a natural occurence, and religious believers might view it as an act of God, and thus something not to be fought.

So in a world where the sun dies naturally, in a fully predictable way, there is a religious desire for a rebirth, something that will break the natural order  of things. (The coming of the New Sun, in the BotNS, is often spoken of the same way we speak of Judgment Day). But in a world where the sun is destroyed by something unnatural, it is seen as an act of God, and fighting it is an act of blasphemy.

That’s an interesting idea, I think. It’s a pity Sunshine didn’t emphasize it more; the reasons behind the crazy captain’s religious belief was never fully explained, and that bugged me more than perhaps any other aspect of the movie.

As is, it’s a fun movie to watch, but certainly not the “best movie of 2007” as I heard some people call it. (I’d probably give that distinction to No Country for Old Men.) It’s just an entertaining movie that attempts more than it actually manages.

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