(Attention conservation notice: While it’s finally slowly wearing off, I found the movie Sunshine disturbing in the extreme. This is blog entry as exorcism.)
Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is the most harrowing movie I have ever seen.
The rest of this blog entry contains major spoilers.
I read in Wikipedia that Sunshine lead actor Cillian Murphy (Capa) converted from agnosticism to outright atheism after filming this movie.
I’m not surprised. I can’t think of any movie that made me examine my beliefs with the unflinching harshness this one did.
To me Sunshine was a prolonged and grueling thought-exercise in which the stakes get higher and higher and the bettors become fewer and fewer until at last the fate of everyone alive rests on the slim shoulders of just one man. Who must commit murder and self-murder to finish the job.
And lucky me, I got to watch it all like a fly on the wall at the execution of the entire human race by an uncaring universe.
What made this movie so powerful to me was how realistic and believable it was in its portrayal of what it would be like to hold the fate of billions in your hands. To know that if you screwed up, the consequences would be literally beyond your frail human imagination.
As I watched, my heart and mind ached for these people to have a moment of real hope, for something to go completely right instead of utterly wrong. But not until the climax of the movie, when Capa touches the Sun, is there anything remotely resembling either of these. For 90 minutes, it’s unmitigated disaster so intense my stomach knotted and it was difficult for me to watch.
What it made me ask myself was if when things go wrong, horribly wrong in ways that bend the mind, is there an agency to whom you can appeal, and be heard – and helped?
There is real dissonance in my life Boyle’s movie forced me to have a look at.
As I watched I was begging some barely acknowledged god under my breath. My heart and mind pleaded for the characters facing death and failure to receive help from some agency, only to watch, again and again, as the chances seemed slimmer and slimmer that humanity would survive. And that no agency watched or cared.
This is like real life, some part of me was thinking, wordlessly. This is what would really happen if something this awful on a scale so incomprehensible really happened. The Sun would be sputtering and we’d all be dying, and there wouldn’t be a big grandaddy in the sky shedding tears and pushing us to some place in the future where all our suffering would at last make sense. If we succeeded, it would be by the strength of our own arms, the love in our own hearts, the intelligence of our own minds. We would succeed and celebrate, or fail and go into nothingness.
Either way, there would be no help and no guarantee.
So who was it I was begging for mercy? How did I expect that mercy to arrive? Via what channel, what force? Things like gravity, energy and time are always involved.
I am not aware of any religion that promises that at the worst moment of your life, or even at the worst moment of your species, you will be given succor and supernatural aid. Christianity, a religion I do not follow but am reasonably familiar with, doesn’t promise this. Yet that’s what I wanted for these people. A supernatural valet. Some unseen hand to save them (and us), save their (my) planet and their (my) race. Maybe there are no atheists during Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.
Because these people were enduring mind-bending responsibility, mind-bending risk and mind-bending failure, and they were completely and utterly alone. To confront so nakedly the idea that suffering like this could and does exist unassuaged was enough to shatter my well-being for the next few days.
I might say I am agnostic, and indeed I am. But like many people, maybe I never quite fully weighed the consequences of failure, or in this case, of the full set of emotional ramifications of there not being anything remotely resembling a god. Not even when you really, really need one. I thought I had had this conversation with myself before, but this movie applies to problem of no-god to a problem far greater than I’ve ever had. Which frames it as I have never framed it before.
There are people and animals in the world who desperately needed and deserved help, and never got it. And the worst thing in the world came, and engulfed them. And now they are dead.
What does that mean for your everyday life? What does it mean when someone you love dies? What does it mean when people and animals live lives (and endure deaths) of great suffering, without hope? What is your role then?
The character Harvey died after missing the airlock, and seemed to die in terror and abandonment. I can somehow only credit Boyle for breaking off Harvey’s frozen-solid arm and showing us his iced-over eyeballs at -273 degrees F. Sometimes when something bad happens and we don’t see it, we pretend it was better than it was. The lost pet found a new home, and is not dying of hunger, cold, thirst or injury. But the man who missed the airlock? He died a horrible death, alone.
I saw it happen. I watched his last breath exit his lungs in a frozen puff.
But what could be more satisfying than saving the human race? I suppose I take my greatest satisfaction from this movie in knowing at least that Capa had a moment of peace knowing, as his short life drew to its self-chosen close, that it seemed that his bomb was working according to plan.
And in the end humanity was saved. And I found I believed that it was saved in the only way possible, by the only agency able, solely and wholly through human science, human rationality and the will and the sacrifices of terrified human beings enduring trials, responsibilities and failures that pushed them to the brink of sanity. Humanity had become monstrous in accomplishment, given self-awareness and intelligence and then charged with a self-saving so great as to buckle the minds of its saviors, charged with saving humanity literally in its entirety.
It was the ultimate triumph of humanism: A sort of new creation (restarting the Sun) in which the hand of the Human lit the spark. Going back to where we started and and knowing the place for the first time.
I could have done without the slasher aspect, which came close to ruining the movie for me. Would Sunshine have worked without an insane astro-villain, as the movie instead hung on a series of technical crises? I think it would have, and worked better.
In a movie based in fleshly reality, a semi-supernatural bogeyman had no place. I’ve read Boyle wanted to take a step away from reality, but IMO it was a bad move in a movie that celebrates, in the most disturbing and provoking way, the unflinching, atheistic light of pure human effort and reason.
It’s the sort of movie that might make you take a good long hard look at your own beliefs, then shudder and slam the door. Some things are hard to acknowledge and easy to swathe in muddled dissonance.
I may believe that at the heart of existence there is an excellent chance that there is nothing, and walk through my day as if it didn’t matter that nothingness ultimately awaits me and everyone I love. But like looking at the Sun, I cannot bear to view this burning absence for too long. I turn my mind to the other side of sunshine, which brings not light but warmth. I dig my hands in the earth of my garden and live for and with everything that in this instant, simply is.
Today is still today. It’s still my turn to be alive on Earth. My breakfast this morning was quite real. I will digest this crisis and turn it into something better if I can. Because as someone once said, it’s not that people who don’t believe in god believe in nothing.
They believe in everything. Up to and including the responsibility to pick up the slack we indolently and selfishly wish god would hold for us.