UEA Philosophers at the Cinema – Sunshine – review

Sunshine frustrates me. By turns it is indelicate, rushed, poorly judged and coming close to being virtually condescending. At other points, it is subtle, intelligent, philosophical and spiritual. Deeply flawed, but always fascinating, Sunshine is much more than just generic science fiction. It tackles issues like faith and religion in the face of the scientific age, often with aplomb, as well as broader but just as deep questions of morality, mortality and responsibility.


The plot is self-contained and easily summarised: the sun is dying. A spacecraft, Icarus, is dispatched with an enormous nuclear device to restart it, but the mission fails and Earth loses contact with the ship. A second mission, Icarus II, is sent as a last-ditch effort to save the human race from extinction. In transit, they come across the wreck of the first mission, and things rapidly start to go wrong for the crew. One cannot help but wonder why the human race would be so willing to tempt fate with a name like ‘Icarus,’ but that’s beside the point.

I want to end this review with the good, so we will deal with the bad first. The last act is a mess. The film needed some kind of edge in order to get it through the last third of the story, but not the edge we ended up with. It isn’t in keeping with the spirit of the rest of the film, descending into slasher territory, giving us something somewhere between Alien and Halloween, but without the flair of either. The issues of fanaticism and fundamentalism brought up in this part of the film are very interesting, but they feel more like name-checks than anything else. To director Danny Boyle’s credit: he doesn’t like the third act himself.

Whether or not this regrettable section entirely derails the film is a matter for the individual film-goer to decide. Speaking purely for myself- I don’t like it, but the strength of the rest of the film (including the closing scenes) is such that it compensates for it. I found it more frustrating than I did actively irritating: I could just about see where Boyle wanted to go, and it is far more interesting than where we ended up going.

But now to assess the strengths, which are numerous.

For a start, the visuals are consistently engrossing. The sun, in particular, is so extraordinarily well realised that it feels almost like a character in its own right. The set design of the Icarus II is also very well constructed, with obvious but not awkward stylistic nods to Alien; the design of the ship feels familiar and plausible.

The film does not preach any clear message to the audience, and seems to delight in shrouding itself in ambiguity and symbolism. I love a film that provokes me, one that wants to be interpreted but can deliver an enjoyable journey on the way, and Sunshine does just that. Be warned, there are a lot of scenes of ‘serious people talking in dark rooms’ (which is one of the reasons why the last act was so jarring), but it never struck me as dull. Boyle weaves an atmosphere of extreme isolation, and deals with the relationships between his characters maturely. Though they did slip into largely predictable roles (man=computer guy, woman=gardener/botanist), the characterisation was handled well for the most part. Of particular note is the character of Searle (Cliff Curtis), the ships almost priestly psychiatrist. His obsession with the sun, his questions about the nature of light and the obliteration of the self were reminiscent of the traditions of mysticism. To be honest, I found him a more engaging character than our lead, Cillian Murphy.

The film has more themes than one can wave a stick at, but deals principally with the question of responsibility. The crew must constantly grapple with the burden of having the collective destiny of humanity weighing on their shoulders, with the realisation that their lives are expendable, and that normal moral codes do not necessarily apply anymore. The breakdown of personal relationships and the individual form much of the meat of the film.

The film deals with the relationship between science and religion skilfully. On a surface level, it appears to be a standard ‘science will save us, religion will damn us’ dichotomy, but this is only superficial. I’ve used the word ‘ambiguity’ above, but I will here use the word ‘mystery.’ The film confronts the mystery of our existence and the sacred mystery of the nature of the divine (either its presence or its absence) without offering us any answers. It, instead, draws our attention to the complexity of questions we might desire simple answers for: answers that are not forthcoming.

Sunshine was shown as part of the ‘UEA Philosophers at the Cinema’ season. This is a regular season, occurring each semester. Previous films in this series have included: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Werner Herzog’s Wheel of Time and Silent Running. There will be another series next semester. Sunshine was introduced by Dr. Vincent M. Gaine.


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August 2021
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