Agnosticism, Atheism and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine

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(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.

28 responses to “Agnosticism, Atheism and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine

  1. Great post. I’m going to have to rent Sunshine now and see how it affects me.

  2. Would love to email/comment with you about the movie if you do watch it. Let me know.

    Meanwhile, I checked out At Day’s Close, a strange counterpoint if you think about it. Will let you know what I think.

  3. I’ll email or leave another comment after I watch it.

    I really enjoyed At Day’s Close…hope you like it.

  4. Hi Jennifer,

    Really great post! “Thanks”…

    I saw Sunshine a while ago and it disturbed me deeply in a somewhat similar way to what you describe …. I wanted to write a blog post about it but couldn’t find the right words… so thank you! This is very inspiring and I am happy to know that I am not the only person shaken by the movie.

    The visual and soundtrack aesthetics of the movie is deeply disturbing… “The beauty of spacecraft engineering”, the stars and constant contrasts of scale framing humanity in the vast nothingness of Space. The incomprehensible vastness, deadliness surrounding them/us. Space is right here, all the time, also now – behind the blue sky, barred out physically and emotionally by our protecting atmosphere, but it is there… It is the norm – we are the exception… a fragile, temporary bubble. and all the mission was about was extending the bubble life.

    And, as you say, the movie is somehow a celebration of atheism… The way that the Spaceship mission and destiny of humanity rely solely on engineering and technical equipment for survival. Things like the necessary equation of total amount of oxygen divided by number of crew members still alive x days to finalise the mission – the dilemma of technical necessity vs. the values of humanity & “no one gets left behind” moral, necessary for social survival. So fundamental human dilemmas…

    I find the last scene very beautyful, when Capa’s girlfriend is walking her baby under a grey sky, and the sunshine breaks through the clouds, turning the day into a beautyful winter day … and that is all we need to know. The crews survival was just a parenthesis to their mission and the survival of humanity so even though it is hard to watch them get “lost in space” one by one it is a happy though bitter sweet ending.

    Now for atheism and the existence of God … I think faith is a very basic part of the human concept. Faith can give the necessary emotional lift under tremendous pressure, the ability to give just a little bit more than possible, push the capabilities, jump higher, sprint longer – provide a great lift in courage by somewhat disabling the fear of Death. Faith also strengthens social moral values, gives kids a strong community frame to grow up in.

    Moreover, we humans need a barrier against the awareness of Space – A barrier against the consciousness of insignificance, to overcome insignificance and innovate our own survival! The atmosphere gives us the physical barrier without which we would not be here at all. Faith can give us emotional protection and support social boundaries. When that is said, I don’t think it is necessary to be religious, to have faith. I like your quotation: “it’s not that people who don’t believe in god believe in nothing.” Even Jesus said something like a non-believer can be the better Christian … it all comes down to what you do for others… it is not about what you say you believe in (he said it in other words, of course).

    However, some people really don’t believe in anything but themselves … They are cynical, untrustworthy, obsessed by money and power, whatsoever… These are the people you don’t want to be in a spaceship crew … ever. I think that true believers are never in that category. To some extend, I generally trust religious people more… with the exception of American Christian fanatics and Muslim fanatics (living prove that religion can drive people collectively insane) … if their faith is true. because I trust their moral integrity and long term social stability.

    In conclusion, even for an “atheistic mission” like the one depicted in the movie, I think faith has its place… the perception that God exists might be contrasted by the surroundings (if you see it that way) but be necessary for survival.

    Anne

    PS. Btw I agree with you that the “astro villain” has not place in the movie and somewhat destroys the picture, … it feels like an error in an otherwise spectacular movie and I have chosen to ignore it.

  5. Ehm as usual my comment is not particularly error free… What I mean here “f their faith is true. because I trust their moral integrity and long term social stability.” it is a continuation of the sentence “I generally trust religious people more”… the remark about fanatics confuses it a bit perhaps!

  6. vintagenoisenik

    hello, jennifer and anne, this i relating to the, erm, astro-villain. i actually think he gave a good climactic stir – figuratively as well as photographically – after all the technical difficulties cropping up all over the place. and i find it somewhat curious that you don’t credit him with at least part of your realization that god occupies such a big chunk of thought at the back of our minds when watching “sunshine.” he was, after all, the only one clinging to god with every breath left in his fried-up body, the only other side of the story that every good argumentation needs. at the end of the day, boyle provided us with a fanatic, a religious fundamentalist, what have you – and made sure we hated him as the bad guy, plain and simple, thereby making a pretty strong statement imho: that religion IS the opium of the masses, something that distorts whatever clarity we have thanks to scientific developments. by giving a face to what you – we – rightly perceived as a faltering god presence, a belief that was failing humanity in its moment of crisis, this carcass of a human being, especially BECAUSE of his improbability, did away with god while preaching on his behalf so ardently, so single-handedly, and so blatantly out-of-touch. i think boyle showed some guts to take the movie in that direction, to make the impotence of god, swooshing in and saving the day, just THAT much more in-your-face.

  7. I haven’t seen Sunshine. But it sounds similar in tone to “Children of Men.” It’s pretty much about the end of mankind. Not via war but our failing biology. It’s is dystopic and miserable with occasional rays of light. Hope through effort, not faith in god to accomplish the impossible. It’s deeply upsetting and satisfying at the same time.

  8. Madmonq, I’ve seen Children of Men and I really liked it and found it thought-provoking and disturbing in how easily one could extrapolate our world from it. Children of Men is bleak and dystopic but but Sunshine is HARROWING.

    Children of Men is about saving the hope of humanity (and an indication things may not be as bad as they seem), while Sunshine is about saving humanity altogether in one-shot enterprise utterly fraught with failure and terror of death.

    It’s a fair comparison, but one I bet you drop when you see Sunshine, which is exponentially more upsetting to me. But if you liked CoM I bet you will find Sunshine worth your while.

  9. Vintagenoisenik,

    I see your point about Pinbacker, but to my mind he just seemed clumsily inserted to add slasher cachet.

    I think if there was going to be an overtly theistic presence in the movie (I saw Pinbacker as nuts, not as a symbol of religion as itself irrational and insane, perhaps because of the strokes being too broad for the rest of the movie), it would change it to tract and lessen its message, which is best implied because it’s when you read things rather than have them shaken in your face that they get to you. Showing an insane, disfigured religious fundamentalist makes it very easy to shoot down the idea of religious fundamentalism, and weakens the argument, IMO.

    And God would have been at the back of my mind without Pinbacker, and was there before Pinbacker slipped onto the scene. To me the “other side of the story” is, Is there a spiritual identity that could contain the events depicted in Sunshine (where, after all, only a few people were sacrificed to save us all, so we did “win”)? I really didn’t see Pinbacker as a statement about religion as insane tripe (he had, after all, just endured 7 years of solitude in space and was bonkers), but as a directorial choice that didn’t work for me.

    But we are in complete agreement that Boyle has guts, this movie is worth seeing, and that Sunshine forces you to contemplate how a “faltering god presence” “failing humanity in its moment of crisis” and the “impotence of god” actually signify that we are praying to nothing and nothingness.

    It’s a slap in the face to a spiritually and ethically lazy society that still needs and wants god (or at least the promise of afterlife), but is running out of excuses for old definitions of god as interfering in existence.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  10. From Thomas Merton:

    I must get to know something of modern physics. Even though I am a monk, that is no reason for living in a Newtonian universe or, worse still, an Aristotelian one. The fact that the cosmos is not quite what St. Thomas and Dante imagined it to be has after all some importance. It does not invalidate St. Thomas or Dante or Catholic theology, but it ought to be understood and taken into account by a theologian. It is futile to try and live in an expanding universe with atomic fission an ever present possibility and try to think and act exclusively as if the cosmos were fixed in an immutable order centered upon man’s earth. Modern physics has its repercussions in the monastery and to be a monk one must take them into account, although that does nothing whatever to make one’s spirituality either simple or neat.

  11. Anne,

    > I am happy to know that I am not the only person shaken
    > by the movie.

    I feel the same way about you.

    > The visual and soundtrack aesthetics of the movie is deeply
    > disturbing… “The beauty of spacecraft engineering”, the stars and
    > constant contrasts of scale framing humanity in the vast nothingness
    > of Space. The incomprehensible vastness, deadliness surrounding
    > them/us.

    I felt the same way. It’s been really cold here lately, with dry, freezing winds, and all I could think of when I stepped outside and felt the wind biting my face and hands was how much worse was was for the Icarus crew(s), who were suspended in an environment antithetical to earthly life.

    > In conclusion, even for an “atheistic mission” like the one depicted
    > in the movie, I think faith has its place… the perception that God
    > exists might be contrasted by the surroundings (if you see it that
    > way) but be necessary for survival.

    I don’t agree with you that god is necessary for survival. I think more and more people are organizing around moral principles based in rationality rather than tradition and ideas about the supernatural, and this gives me great hope (of course, people are also organizing around irrationality and prejudice, too).

    And I don’t think atheists are morally suspect. Quite the opposite. Because they don’t believe god will come to the rescue, I think they often try to be the rescuers themselves.

    And of course I still go to church (went this very morning, in fact) and I would not call myself an atheist, though this movie brought me in touch with the idea that I had not yet carried the idea of no-god through to a complete and logical end, in part because of the pain and fear involved in doing so.

    But there is so much order here on earth, so much joy. And there is no reason for pleasure or order, not to mention the universe had to come from something and somewhere.

    I am still an agnostic, just, I suppose, a better one.

    > PS. Btw I agree with you that the “astro villain” has not place in the
    > movie and somewhat destroys the picture, … it feels like an error in
    > an otherwise spectacular movie and I have chosen to ignore it.

    LOL me too.

  12. Hey, generally I agree with you…

    About “I don’t think atheists are morally suspect”. and
    “Because they don’t believe god will come to the rescue, I think they often try to be the rescuers themselves.”

    That’s a good point…

    What I meant is, I think it is important to believe that “something bigger” is more important than individual satisfaction, and that is what I mean by faith. Faith does not have to be religious, but I think religion can make it easier to relate to faith, provide a frame around sound moral values and community spirit. Also, the fear of Death is important… in order to exceed ones limits and grow as a person, I think it is important to learn to disregard the strong instinctive fear of death, and it is possible through the unconditional trust in “a bigger meaning”, God…

    Atheism does not imply “no faith” but some atheists really do not have faith, or “purpose in life”… they are just careless. So what I mean by faith is the antithesis to selfishness, materialism, cyniscism, ultra individualism, ultra liberalism…

    @Vintagenoisenik, I see, I did not think of it that way… I did not think of him as representing religion but more as a kind of demon and I felt that was a contradiction with the movie’s tone… it still would have worked better for me without him though, as I feel he was not necessary and too much of a broad statement in the context of the underplayed, gradually built-up tension…

    At last – Thanks Jennifer for you excellent writing. I really enjoy it and particularly when it brings a difficult topic like this into life.

    One more thing about this movie – i think it ought to be seen on a big screen, if possible, because the story is very much in the spectacular images and soundtrack.

  13. Here I thought it was a thoroughly depressing, poorly scripted film about characters being forced to act like unprofessional idiots when Alex Garland, their pathetic hack of a writer, wasn’t busy feeding them into death traps. Gee. And if he lives to be three hundred years old, Danny Boyle still won’t be the director Ridley Scott is. A rip-off artist, maybe. Visionary: no.

    Come on, admit it: the pretty music and even-prettier Cillian Murphy’s faceoff with that big ol’ wall o’ fire fooled you into thinking this was something intelligent and profound. It’s not. It’s a dumb, derivative mess.

  14. Hey Jennifer, I rented Sunshine and enjoyed it, but it didn’t hit me the same way it seems to have hit you. The cinematography was great, but I found a few characters rather annoying, particularly Mace/Chris Evans (What exactly did he bring to the mission, other than testosterone? Do they not psych-test last-chance-for-humanity astronauts? And what sort of a name is Mace?).

    As for God(s), it seems perfectly plausible to me that various crew members — and certainly people back on Earth — would be praying to their God(s) for success. The ~insane Capt. Pinbacker was communing with his God as well…but it seems he lost out in the end. This might suggest that God(s) are simply our own projections, creations, hopes, etc. — but who really knows? Perhaps it was Ganesh that guided the solar bomb to its rightful destination….

  15. It’s funny how artistic experiences hit people differently, and even hit the same people different ways at different times. People are just too different to all share the same reaction to something as complex as a movie.

    I suppose I am just at a point in my life where I am vulnerable to the idea that I have not yet staked (or updated) a well-reasoned intellectual claim on my views surrounding afterlife, god and moral responsibility in a world where genocide is ho-hum evening news to a world overexposed to monstrosity. What got to me about the movie was the idea that the fate of the whole human race really could hang on a slender thread, and that I am not convinced that the outcome would or could be influenced by any agency other than the human.

    That got to me. That and the wrenching suffering experienced by a group of people carrying such a burden, and the deaths and voluntary self-murder the mission involved.

    I totally agree some of the characterizations were weak. Rose Byrne, whom I like, was offensively squishy in her obvious role as the nonutilitarian, emotional one.

    BTW I am reading At Day’s Close and LOVING it. Thanks for the rec!

  16. I think this movie should be seen in the cinema, not rented… because most of the message is in the spectacular sound track and visual scenery. The senses are not overwhelmed in the same way without a mega screen and cinema speakers

  17. Interesting…my reaction to Sunshine was rather different. Even though ideas about beliefs, man’s place in the universe, etc., were fairly obviously presented, I didn’t feel much of any of those feelings, nor thought much about the meaning of various beliefs. Not that I am a shallow unthinking person-rather the opposite, but that I tend to watch movies as if they are movies. I am utterly unconcerned, or unimpressed, with the writers views, or the directors. What I look for in a movie, is an experience, be it intelligent, or vacuuous. Bunuel said it best, when he described movies as merely dreams.

    Indeed, they are. So how does Sunshine rate as a dream? Well, while not quite nightmare, it might have close to the kind of disturbing dream that upon awakening, one finds all too dreary, pedantic, and predictable-what awakened you in the first place. There was nowhere for anyone to think. No space was given to the viewer, to make up their own mind, and, peculiar as this may sound, in spite of the soundtrack, and the stunning visuals, I felt little creativity was actually involved. And deeply unrealistic. Events, in actual reality, simply do not relentlessly happen on one side of the perceptual coin-even in the middle of disasters, there occur events of humour, incidents of peculiar amazement, even happiness. When contemplating the unfortunate fate of many people on this planet, we, so pleasantly surrounded by many options and choices, tend to forget that spirit and courage exist in abundance, everywhere. Zen, or buddhism, has at least one answer, with the story of the monk, falling off the cliff, and seeing a beautiful flower on his way down to inevitable death. He chose to contemplate the beauty and fragile wonder of the flower. He did not need to ask questions about the existance of god, or not, or the nature of the universe. It was there, in front of his eyes.

    Sunshine seemed to lack this. With the exception of the plant, said plant, to me, having more presence than the people. They seemed to be merely going through the motions of survival. The only decent moment was the guy who ‘touched the sun’. Nice, but nowhere did I feel invited in to think. I just felt hammered with the cause for rationality. and my response to being hammered with “Isn’t rationality (read:atheism or agnosticism) neat and wonderful?” -woops, bad grammar here, oh darn is “No. Not when you present it that way. Is it rational to hammer the point of rationality home? Is it rational to wax pedantic about rationality?” And where has rationality gotten us, anyways? Near as I can tell, atheism has provided approximately similar levels of death and suffering and torture, as has certain fundamentalist Christian religions. Seems to often come down to the either/or age old black and white argument.

    There are many great movies out there, that allow the viewer in, that are aware of their function as dreamworlds, that offer the possibility of thought, not mere arguments over whether the universe is uncaring or not. In fact, that entire argument seems a bit of a ruse-the universe is either uncaring, or it isn’t.” No, as described by the Incompleteness Theorem, universe winds up being far too big, messy, complex, for such a limited argument to have any attention paid to it.

    Oh, and finally, ‘Sunshine ‘ actually bored me. It was quite predictable. I knew, fairly quickly in, that somewhere, there had to be a hollywood ending. Too many of the disasters were suchy obvious set ups. In this, it shares a similarity with Cloverfield-one knows, very soon, what is going to happen, and that is the point where one loses interest. I knew there was a crazy villain somewhere within the first couple of’ incidents’.

  18. Sunshine was indeed a wonderful film, I very much enjoyed it.

    True, it was quite harrowing. The fact that the film seemed so scientifically sound is what truly frightened me, more than any extrateresterial alien or freak meteor shower. It is a fact that one day the sun will fade, forever (It loses about 4 million/billion tonnes per day). The film actually prompted me to go out and read more about how the sun’s radiation transmits heat to other surfaces. I guess if a proper reflective surface was created, one really could get that close to the sun. The least believeable sequence was the final struggle between the remaining two crewmembers and the fanatic, in a seemingly gravitationaly stable cube hurdling towards the sun at an incredible speed without burning up. How did mankind figure that one out? Why not make the entire ship “solar entry” proof?

    The slasher aspect did draw away from the film a bit. It did give the film a more precarious aspect having some fanatic semi-human being aboard the ship, but I think this individual’s presence was more to state a point than to help advance the plot. This… thing… used to be a human being. And he, like the psychologist on Icarus II, both feel some strange connection to the sun (and obviously spend a bit too much time looking at it, from what we can tell of their skin damage). At one point the psychologist tells that some have looked into the sun and have seen the face of God. This fanatic believes he saw God and believes he is on a crusade to stop the Icarus II’s mission because it is clearly man’s time to go. This clearly jabs at the tradition of Christianity.

    I feel that the film would turn viewers away from Christianity because of this sub-human side plot, but at the same time I think it would draw more viewers towards the thought of agnosticism. This star that resides in the middle of our solar system commands great respect from all characters involved. It permeates their thoughts, their dreams (“The sun’s surface, I dream about it all the time”), and their sense of reality. It is clear to these characters that they may not make it home, and thus the sun seems like their final destination, a source of truth or answers.

    At the last moment, what did Capa discover when he touched the sun? What brought a smile to his face in that final moment? Was he relieved that they had succeeded and his family and the human race would survive? Was he overwhelmed with wonder as he touched the sun’s mass and energy? Was this final moment merely a dream like state before his death? … did he see God?

    Difficult to tell… while the end of the film is triumphant except for those who gave their lives, Capa’s thoughts remain a mystery.

    Christianity, Atheism, Agnosticism? I’m not entirely sure. Despite its flaws, it does cause one to think critically about their beliefs, which I think is a positive thing. Thumbs up :)

  19. Yep. Just watched this movie on pay-per-view this weekend and similarly found it pretty harrowing and disturbing. (And yet, at the same time, very compelling as well.)

    Yes, some of it was the general subject matter, and the stakes involved – no less than the survival of the human race resting on these brave souls’ shoulders, and the insane risks involved in flying a spaceship directly towards the sun.

    But more than that, it was the graphic depictions of the deaths of several of the crew members that really got to me. It’s strange, you know: I can watch shoot-em-up action movies where the hero mows down dozens of bad guys with a machine gun and it doesn’t faze me. But scenes depicting a single man, in close up, facing his imminent demise – and with full knowledge that he’s about to die – just chill me to the bone.

    And Sunshine had not one but two such scenes.

    One, as you mentioned, was Harvey missing the airlock, and Boyle explicitly focusing on him out there holding his breath until he finally succumbs. Chilling.

    But even more disturbing for me was the scene of Captain Kaneda dying during the space walk. Having made a conscious decision to save the ship – and sacrifice himself – by turning the ship’s shields back towards the sun, he then turns to face his impending doom – the full onslaught of the sun’s heat and solar winds. But then, just as he’s on the brink of death, Searle, the ship’s psychologist calls to him on his radio and asks, “Kaneda, what do you see?!?!? Kaneda, WHAT DO YOU SEE?!?!?” My God, how horrible! It’s awful enough to be looking into the face of your own death. But to at that moment have someone present who’s insane enough and self-absorbed enough not just to not offer words of comfort, but to instead demand to know what you’re experiencing. Ugh! I shudder thinking about it even now.

    Clearly Searle – and to some extent, all of the crew – are in various states of mental instability (with Searle apparently having become sun-mad, obsessed with seeing the sun in its full brightness). But the whole scene – including his behavior in it – absolutely gave me the willies.

    The last time I remember being as disturbed by a movie death scene is in Saving Private Ryan, where Adam Goldberg’s character is in the midst of dying at the hands of a German soldier slowly pushing a knife into his chest while whispering, “shhhhh”.

    In any case, no, I’m not some wacko who obsesses over this stuff. In fact, I don’t like generally even like watching particularly graphic movies. What I’m really trying to convey that it’s a testament to Danny Boyle & Co. that he was able to make the movie so gripping that these scenes seemed so real and chilling.

    Anyway, as far as the movie in general, I rather liked it. A fascinating and staggering concept for a film – especially when you make the inevitable connection of putting yourself into the place of the characters, and trying to think how you would handle the dangers, and the weight of responsibility (the survival of the entire human race is in your hands!) of being in such a situation.

    I’m rather in agreement with many others that the presence of Capt. Pinbacker as a “monster” takes the film in a bit of an unnecessary turn, and makes it veer a bit towards a slasher flick. But that aside, I found it to be a pretty realistic (for sci fi), gripping, and compelling film that left me thinking about it for days after. And any filmmaker who can do that has done something right.

  20. Thanks so much for your thoughts. In IMDB this movie was panned, but there was something so beautiful about it that touched me. I couldn’t find the words, but you found them for me.

    I agree the Pinbacker slasher angle was a bad move that did indeed nearly ruin the movie. I like it despite that. Hopefully someone will do a fanedit that takes that part out of it, and then it really can stand as something special.

  21. Pinbacker is central to this movie, he is the embodyment of America’s christian right-wing. In 2007 George W Bush and his ilk were the greatest threat to the human race. Pinbacker’s believes God speaks to him, and that he knows God’s will. Bush has said the same. Pinbacker wants to be the last man standing, all others he will see destroyed. Millions of christian fundementalists believe the same, that the destruction of the world is imminent, and that they, the true believers will ascend into heaven and gloat at the disbelievers who will be consumed with the earth. It’s called the rapture, and is every bit as repulsive as a belief as Pinbacker is as a character.

  22. I think you meant -273 degrees Celsius

  23. I especially loved the last few paragraphs of your review. I’ll have to check this movie out.

    If someone is an agnostic that doesn’t call themself a theist because they just can’t fully believe, guess what? They don’t believe. They’re not a theist and that automatically makes them an a-theist.

    I think many people who self-identify as “just” agnostics and are scared to commit to the atheist label could also consider “agnostic atheist” if they were aware that theism vs. atheism is a discussion about belief, while gnosticism vs. agnosticism is a discussion about knowledge. The two can be plotted on different axes, leading to labels such as “gnostic theists”, who, like Pinbacker, not only believe in a god, but claim to know what it is and what it wants.

    This x and y axis model might not be completely correct (its probably more like a field, with varying terrain), but I think its better than the theist-agnostic-atheist spectrum.

    I’m an agnostic atheist. I’ve been in plenty of arguments and heard dozens more, and I haven’t heard any remotely convincing evidence for gods. Yet I don’t claim that I know for a fact that there are no gods. I don’t think there are but I don’t know for sure. I remain open to new arguments and purported evidence.

    But, the reason I love the end of your review is because it embraces humanism:

    “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.”

    So I don’t believe in gods. So what? How do I get from “there are not gods” to “I should educate myself and flourish as a human being”? I don’t. As important as the concept of atheism is, its empty as a philosophy because it doesn’t lead anywhere.

    I believe in my fellow human — our curiosity, creativity, and resourcefulness — and I believe we all have a responsibility to support and cherish each other… and this pale blue dot called Earth.

    RE Pinbacker: Has anyone seen Jesus Camp (2006)? If you have seen both films, how does Pinbacker compare with the religious fundamentalists in the documentary? Thanks.

  24. Just to clear up some definitions.
    Atheist/ theist is different to agnostic/ gnostic. A/theist goes to belief in god. A/gnostic goes to knowledge, whether you know, for a fact, your stance.

    That is, you can be:
    Atheist agnostic. Don’t believe in god, but don’t know for a fact god doesn’t exist.
    Atheist gnostic. Don’t believe in god and know god doesn’t exist.
    Theist agnostic. Belive in god, but don’t know for a fact god exist
    Theist gnostic. Beleive in god and know god exists

    A lot of people get these terms wrong, and it really helps to use the right terms.

    As for the movie, I didn’t understand people reading religious connertations into it, perhaps because I’m an atheist agnostic. I do enjoy it though.

  25. Pingback: Oh, Now I Get It! |

  26. finally someone who could see the movie without those atheist lenses
    without the madman anyone wouldn’t think that this movie is attacking religion of God
    the attitude Searl and Kaneda and even the supposedly atheist Capa when he say “my God” to which the madman replay “his my God and not yours!” which is plainly wrong from a theist point of view (the God is all creation God and not a private God)
    it always makes me wonder how much some atheist can be ignorant an repeat some blatant lies and idiotic knee jerk reactions
    the madman is as dangerous to theistic people as he is to everyone else (example al-quaida didn’t care if it killed innocent wether they were atheist, belivers or even muslims)
    and theist arn’t as pure as they pretend to be (eugenic, phrenology, communism, anti-religion repression, Holocaust …. )
    even in the film they discussed how to kill one theirs and Capa said “Kill Him!” and thats a word some al-quaida operative would say
    a atheistic world without war racism and every problem is pure fantasy WWII was waged by 2 of the most atheistic ideologies of history
    it desn’t matter what you believe a wrong is wrong and crime isn’t justified by neither religion nor moral nor science

  27. Benjamin Swinbanks

    Anne, the view that athiests are morally bankrupt is an extremely unjustified stab at those who dont believe in such nonsense as ‘god’

    People are people, there are good and bad. t\and there are alot of bad ‘true believers’ out there too.

    note im not saying ‘all’

    you cant take somebodies lack of a willingness to believe in a fantasy (as I believe it to be) and proclaim that they lack a moral compass.

    I do good things for people and am at heart a good person. not because i want to appease a ‘higher power’ or that i am afraid of what will happen to me in the afterlife if i am not a model citizen. It is because life is better when people are good to eachother, treat people how you expect to be treated. its common sense, not a rule-set from above.

    I have found in my time that it is the religious that tend to be the most selfish. acting good just to secure a place in heaven? please.

    I embrace the insignificance of the human race, it sets a bar that we may push further and rise above our modest boundaries. sans-god.

    I believe an existance without such fanatical childrens beliefs such as religion would be a much nicer and saner place for all.

    wake up Anne.

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