Sunshine, my friend in the SF Studies program, won two tickets to see Danny Boyle’s latest effort, Sunshine (yeah, don’t ask). She couldn’t make it, because she was leaving earlier in the day for Dublin with her mom. That being the case, she gave Jean and me the tickets to see the film in her stead.
The film was shown at the FACT, and it was followed by a televised Q&A session with the director, Danny Boyle (Trainspotting and 28 Days Later). With a pint of beverage in hand, we settled in for the film.
There are some things that the director did remarkably well. And, there are other things that he did so badly that it felt like someone was poking me in the eye to the extent that I walked out of the theater in tears of blood.
First, the things that Boyle did well. Visually, the film is spectacular! He consciously
charges the color capacitor–starving the audience of color–and then unleashes torrents of held back color accompanied by gusts and punches of sound. The visual impact of the sun is part of his scheme, and it doesn’t disappoint. I can’t think of any star in SF that looks as great as the one in Sunshine.
The actors inhabiting the violent and bipolar shifting vacuum between the Earth and the sun are dead-on. Even though we don’t have any backstory on their characters, they all maintain a dynamic sense of self that feels much more real than many cardboard cutouts often found in SF films. If only the story and created world could live up to the performances made by the cast.
The film is weighed down by elements that detract from the overall movie watching experience–at least for those of us with a bit of science background. First, the movie is set 50 years in the future and the claim of the film is that our star is dying out. This is where I started having problems with this being a supposed SF film. This isn’t a logical extrapolation from the world and universe in which we live. The sun will continue burning for billions of years. In the Q&A, Boyle told the audience that there are two tracks for space movies: space fantasy (Star Wars, Star Trek) and NASA films (2001: A Space Odyssey). He also put his film into the NASA film group. For his lack of logical extrapolation in a key plot point among other issues that I’ll go on to detail, I find this film firmly placed in the skivviest section of sci-fi space fantasy and not in the harder SF that Boyle claims to be conjuring.
The next fallacy is humanity’s plan to help out our friendly neighborhood stellar object with a specially constructed bomb constructed bomb made of the total fissile material mined from the Earth’s crust. The bomb appears to be a large cube that’s approximately a few hundred meters across. Their plan is to drop the bomb down a convection ‘tunnel’ on the surface where it’ll make its way down to some depth and go off. This idea is completely bunk. From the simulated images onboard ship, it looks like they plan to drop the bomb down a sunspot. Granted, sunspots and convection points all over the surface of the sun are dark in comparison to the surrounding material. The reason for this is that those areas of material are at a slightly lower temperature than the material around it. It’s actually not black as in an absence of something like a cave, but it’s merely a difference in temperature which is shown as an extreme in comparison to hotter areas. For a description of this with pictures, go here.
Okay, let’s say that their silver bullet will do as it’s intended to do and make its way into the sun. Fusion reactions take place in the core of the sun, which is a long way from the surface. The diameter of the sun is 1.39 x 10^6 km, so the radius is 6.95 x 10^5 km. So, for this long trek, the bomb will have to withstand the heat and pressure of the sun’s interior as well as the increasing acceleration due to gravity. Even in Star Trek: The Next Generation the writers knew this was crazy, so they invented interphasic shielding to circumvent having to deal with the magnitude of those forces.
Assuming that in 50 years the Earth has genius materials scientists and engineers up for this task, then there is the issue with the make-up of the bomb. The bomb is made up of all of the fissile materials that humanity can mine from the crust of the Earth. Now, most of the fissile material in the Earth is down around the core, because those elements are very heavy and were drawn there when the Earth was forming (thankfully, because otherwise we either wouldn’t be here or we’d be a lot different than we are). Now, consider the size of the Earth in relation to the Sun on this site (scroll down a bit). For comparison, you can fit approximately 1.3 million Earths inside the volume of the Sun. Therefore, our entire planet is insignificant in comparison to the sun. And from our planet, we’re going to send out heavy metal fissile material encased in a bomb that will somehow reignite the self-regulating proton-proton chain fusion reactions within the Sun’s core. That bomb would elicit the tiniest of belches within, and there would be no manifestation of its effect on the surface of the Sun.
Finally, the design of the ship was the worst needle in my eye. One, Boyle’s idea of putting rotating antennae along the shaft of the spacecraft does not imply any kind of artificial gravity, unless the people are in pressurized containers at the ends of the rotating arms. Boyle said that he used artificial gravity because of the time and cost constraints of making the film, and he believed the rotating elements on the exterior of the ship would imply artificial gravity. No, they do not. In fact, putting antennae at the ends of the rotating arms makes no sense. Johnnie Cochran’s ‘Chewbacca’ defense makes more sense. He could have used a different ship design to make it more plausable, but his linear design doesn’t plan out. Other problems include no escape pods or shuttles that could have been employed in docking with Icarus I, and a ship that size would need more than one airlock. However, I did think his inversion of the old nuclear bomb propulsion system explored by NASA was inventive.
Other issues with the movie include: Why is it a manned mission (I realize this would obviate the purpose of the movie, so make a better movie that holds together a bit more rationally)? Where are the NASA redundancies and checklists? Why does the ship’s ‘AI’ allow any manual control if at one point it takes control from the crew, because at that point, and no other, it believes the mission in jeapardy? Who picked this crew and the crew of Icarus I, and how did so many nut jobs make it through psychchecks? Is this a horror film or badly made SF? I do think Boyle handles equalizing race very well, but there are only two female characters (three if you count the computer–but what does that say?) and they seem to fall into stereotyped roles. How does this fit into Boyle’s idea that space is equalizing?
My beef with this film is that it tries to be hard SF, but it falls flat. There is too much of the fantastic and lack of respect for the physical universe for it to fully explore just how futile humanity’s place is in the universe. Also, the director hedges his bets by showing the sacrifice of the crew, but having the project actually pay off for those back on Earth.
I do believe that the film will serve as a resource in future SF criticism–gender relations, narrative, personal experience vs. collective experience. Also, I do know at least one person that really enjoyed the film (Jonathan described it as a Jules Verne story, particularly with the gold EVA suits. And I will concede that it is very much a voyages extraordinaire).
If you want hard SF, you won’t find it in Sunshine. However, if you want a romp to the Sun complete with sacrifice and crazies illuminated by amazing visual and sound effects, then go check out Boyle’s latest.