Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is a surprisingly effective appeal to identify with suicide bombers. But in his film Boyle has engineered a narrative that frames secular science as the True Belief that drives the faithful. Sunshine tells the story of a future earth that circles a slowly dying star, and a concomitant mission to save the world by dropping a bomb into the center of the sun, reigniting its dimming burn. It is easy, watching Sunshine, to begin to imagine sacrificing one’s own life for such a cause.
The anxiety around sun worship is profoundly old. It haunts the very earliest moments of monotheism (see Philip Glass’s Akhnaten). The Abrahamic tradition grew up in the shadows of an ice age. These are stories from mankind’s childhood, when the approach of the winter solstice must have accompanied a grim anxiety – that the sun would not return.
Sun worship is the ur heresy – the original distraction. The old testament made Sol a creature like ourselves: “Sun and moon fall down before thee, O God,” The distraction is not difficult to understand; sun shine is the source of all life on earth, this is far more compelling than the narcissism of idolatry and ancestor worship. The sun competes with God as an equal. When we celebrate the sun we are looking outward, but orthodoxy insists that we are not looking far enough.
Throughout the Mediterranean world, the ubiquitous blue bead that protects the wearer from the long hard look of the eye has a puzzling connection to the sun. Architectural historian Ross King explains Persian domes “express the flight of the soul from man to God.” Others say that the program of blue tile that covers Masques mirror the sky, but these interpretations do not justify the enormous investment these domes represent. The ancient Greeks sculpted the figures for the pediment of the Parthenon in the round – finishing the backs with the same care as if the works would be seen at eye level (which is how the British museum displays them now, but they were originally mounted forty feet above eye level and seen only from the front).
This extra work, again an enormous investment in labor, was done for the eyes of the gods. Their omnipotent attention was understood. Perhaps the blue domes that dot the Middle East reflect a similar concern. But these domes are not intended to support the whimsical glances of pagan gods. Here the penitent have a shield from the heavy gaze of God All Mighty. These domes shelter us at the moment of deepest intimacy with our Deity, as we pray. They are great blue-eyed beads facing heaven – an architectural talisman that protects us from the harsh regard of God’s omnipotent stare.
But in Sunshine it is not God’s regard that dominates the narrative but rather the worshiping rapture of the believer. What is at stake in this film is fraction and heresy; perhaps that is why the filmmakers did not cap their starship, the Icarus II, with a blue dome, but chose instead to make their spacecraft a golden dome. The ship looks like Jerusalem’s golden Dome of the Rock trailing a stringer of fragile glowing habitats. In a geography that has no shortage of religious conflict, the Dome of the Rock remains one of, if not the most, contested religious sites in the Middle East. (Muslims believe it is the site of Mohamed’s bodily ascendancy into heaven, Jews believe it is the site of the First Temple and Fundamentalist Christians hold that the Jews must rebuild the Temple and be converted before the Apocalypse can begin.) So, here, in the shadow of the sun’s hard stare, it is the ecstatic distraction of wonder that haunts all True Belief that is allowed to consume the imaginations of the spacecraft’s crew.
The first of the crew to give in to the wonder of the sun is the crew’s psychologist, Searle (Cliff Curtis). The film opens with him sitting in reverie in a room that looks a lot like a video projection room you might find at the Tate Modern or a Chelsea gallery. Here, though, he is not looking at a projection; like a church or cathedral t his secular sanctuary faces the rising sun. The room is a porthole in the ship’s protective dome, screened with a computer-controlled filter that allows the crew to look directly at the sun. Searle orders the ship’s computer to lower the filter by small degrees until he is pain from seeing .03% of the sun’s full glare. As the film goes on his obsession begins to manifest physically. His skin is shown peeling and blistered from his time spent in front of the sun (like the hairy palms or the worn nail of the onanist, this is the mark of his heresy).
Boyle’s film is a celebration of light. He uses the same silver retention technique that David Fincher used when filming Seven. This process gave the darkness of Seven deep rich dark and silvery white light. In Sunshine the technique is used to work back into the light, and golden light thunders across the screen like a waterfall. Light-sabers are diminished and lame in comparison to Boyle’s light show, which is deployed like a physical force. Sunshine is a Niagara. It is no stretch at all to understand the distraction Searle feel as he falls under the sun’s thrall. Doyle makes sun gazers of us all.
At the film’s climax the sole remaining crew member is left to pilot a black cubic volume of fissile material into the heart of the sun (after a battle with a Freddy Kruger-like superman that really derails the movie). In the film the sun’s core is a location of such intense and complex forces that scientists and computer models, no matter how advanced, are unable to predict what will take place.
The sun in Boyle’s story is Schroedinger’s box: a moment of absolute uncertainty that is at the core of scientific belief. It is, essentially, exactly like religious belief. The Belief is that this sacrifice will save the world. The final frames are pointed images; the shot of the bomb falling into the sun looks like the Ka’bah – the lodestone of Muslim worship – in Mecca. The hero riding within the belly of this is shown at the moment of detonation both alive and dead. A miracle of quantum physics. It is unlikely that Boyle was unintentional in making this visual association.
Just like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, which Sunshine clearly emulates, this movie finishes in transcendence, ambiguity and rebirth. Also like 2001, Boyle’s film is deeply flawed, but it is more than worth seeing. While Sunshine doesn’t answer any questions, it does ask them beautifully.