' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Sunshine

Friday, April 19, 2019

Some Drivel On...Sunshine

As the solar eclipse of August 2017 approached, news outlets repeatedly warned not to look at the sun with the naked eye, except during the moment of actual total eclipse, lest you suffer significant eye damage. Inevitably, America’s President stepped onto the White House balcony in those landmark pre-total eclipse moments and looked directly at the sun. He’s not a bright fella, our Chief Executive. Still, I thought of him squinting into a solar eclipse as I toured the Palace of Versailles outside Paris a few months later where emblems of King Louis XIV’s self-imposed status as the Sun King abound. Nothing, of course, obviously, is more powerful in our solar system than the sun which no doubt makes kings – or wannabe kings vexed by pesky separation of powers – insecure. So, you take the sun’s name as your own or you look directly at the sun when you absolutely shouldn’t because the sun isn’t better than you. This differs, but only somewhat, from people like deceased legend Sir Isaac Newton who, at age 22, stared at a reflection of the sun and then 27 years later recounted the episode for John Locke. The results, as Newton explained them, may have been based on logic per what the brightest star in the universe does, but the language suggests something else. “I am apt to think that if I durst venture my eyes,” Newton wrote, “I could still make y phantasm return by the power of my fansy.” That’s a poetical explanation of what staring at the sun does to a man, causing someone like Sir Isaac Newton to talk in terms of phantasms rather than pragmatism. And that is the glorious grey area where Danny Boyle’s semi-forgotten personal masterpiece “Sunshine” (2007) manages to exist, honoring deep space’s conflicting ideas of light and darkness with a movie that drives reason and philosophy straight into each other.

The sun is dying, explains the film as it opens, leaving mankind in a lurch, causing a spaceship and crew (after the first spaceship and crew has gone missing) to set out for the sun to re-start it, “create a star within a star.” It’s a solid set-up, and while the principal objective of their mission and humanity itself is never overlooked despite the movie concentrating on several individuals, these characters’ respective crises and philosophical debates do not insultingly override their objective mission and humanity’s fate but intertwine. As the movie opens, Searle (Cliff Curtis), the ship’s psych officer is in the viewing deck, observing the sun through a modified prism that ensures, like, you know, his retinas don’t incinerate. Curtis’s air impressively evinces a regal deference to the solar deity, and when he asks the computer’s ship – a sunnier HAL – if he can see the sun at 4 percent brightness rather 2 percent, she explains that 4 percent would incinerate his retinas, epitomizing mankind’s propensity for tempting fate, which their ship name – Icarus II – also makes abundantly clear.

That ship name is evocative of how Boyle and his screenwriter Alex Garland build so many philosophical contradictions into the scaffolding of the screenplay, transforming abundant exposition into more meaningful meditations. When Cassie (Rose Byrne), the ship’s pilot, expresses fear at the looming mission to Capa (Cillian Murphy), the ship’s physicist, he explains how the payload works in a way almost befitting Newton’s musings about staring into the sun. “A big bang on a small scale,” he says. “A new star born out of a dying one. I think it’ll be beautiful. I’m not scared.” “I am,” she says.

That’s the question looming – not so much, will humanity survive, even if that question is never sidelined by narrative necessity, but what awaits each of us at the end, how will we get there, what it will be like? “What do you see?” Searle begs his ship’s Commander (Hiroyuki Sanada) as the latter races to repair the ship to salvage the mission as the ship’s rotation means the full blast of the sun is about to come into view and roast him. The Commander never says what he sees but he doesn’t have to, the film’s evocative, unforgettable music score mixing with the actor’s serene countenance suggest transcendence. How often do you see a Hollywood action sequence punctuated not with an explosion but enigmatic awe?

That this sequence happens at all ties back to the foremost plot complication – that is, in route to the sun, Icarus II picks up the signal of supposedly lost Icarus I, quietly camped out somewhere near Mercury. Though protocol dictates staying on mission since, hey, their mission involves saving Earth and everyone on it, they change course for the first Icarus anyway after a legitimate, logical debate about whether the benefit of possibly acquiring Icarus I’s payload in addition to their own outweighs the cost of deviating from their course. Mathematically speaking, Capa says, the answer is yes. But variables get them anyway, which makes their decision to fly toward Icarus I not narrative contrivance but a furthering of the film’s overriding philosophical debate.

It is also their undoing. The final act twist is that Icarus I’s commander, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), is still alive, having killed his crew himself, playing God after undergoing some sort of fundamentalist religious conversion from being in the sun too long, glimpsed in how he, the character, is barely glimpsed, his flesh having mostly melted away. It’s a haunted house, basically, as Boyle’s mostly clear editing suddenly gives way to quick-cut pyrotechnics. If my first time around I struggled with this passage, I ruminated on it for years and came around, particularly on my most recent viewing, where the adrenalized camera and narrative accentuate how the logic and reason of that do-we-rendezvous-with-Icarus-I discussion collapses into calamitous madness. Even as it does, though, Capa stays moving on a parallel track, rationally trying to complete the mission, fending off this encroaching mania yet ultimately surrendering to it. He sees the light.

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