Sunshine: A Valentine’s Day letter to a film that deserves more love

A brief Valentine’s Day letter to a film that has received far less love than it deserves, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) – published early to keep the day for my long-suffering better half 😉

Dearest Sunshine,

I am writing to you on Valentine’s Day to express my total dedication to your radiant power, and to let you know that I will never succumb to the seemingly endless pressure placed upon me to abandon you and deny your qualities.

Your parentage, in so far as it can be said that you have parents, is probably most accurately attributable to Danny Boyle (from whom you got your good looks, energetic pace and emotive impact) and Alex Garland (from whom you got your quick wit and social conscience). I do hope that, wherever they are today, they are proud of what you have become – especially given the harsh criticism to which you have been subjected.

You are, of course, descended from a long and honourable line of science fiction masterworks dedicated to the questioning, illuminating and celebrating of the universe and man’s place within it. From Lang’s Metropolis to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, to Scott’s Blade Runner… the torch has been passed down through the generations.  But these ancestors have been accepted into the canon, where as you have not. Why is this?

Many varied criticisms have been made of you, some of which are at least understandable, while others seem totally disconnected from the film I know and love. Of course the largest, and perhaps the most popular of these stems from the shift within your third act. I shan’t go into detail here; it’s not my place to rob future viewers of the joy of seeing you for the first time. But I will say that many have perceived a shift in the last portion of your tale that seems incongruent and perhaps not in keeping with your first two acts. To this I would simply say that, by taking the almost religious solar awe demonstrated by some characters in your earliest stages, and displaying the logical conclusion of indulging this fixation, you have managed to create a beautiful and multi-layered allusion to humanity’s inability to appreciate their insignificance with respect to the universe; their desire to construct spiritual meanings that allow them to conceal said insignificance; and ultimately their desire to take upon themselves the absolute and awesome power which they have beheld  in nature but which will always lie beyond their grasp. In other words, where some see a facile Hollywood descent into genre cop-out, I see a flawless and complex mirror held up to the human race.

There are so many moments at which you seem to attain a kind of perfection of expression, embedding within a single insignificant moment massive truths about what it is to be alive in the universe. I shan’t go on about these too much; you are totally familiar with your own composition after all. But there is one moment when a single misstep has the potential to jeopardise not just the future, but also to turn human history into dust. This is never said, never spoken – it is simply true. The moment is so typical of you – you’re so often composed of asides that are easily missed by those simply in search of a plot to follow.

And that is what you are, Sunshine. Simply a kind of human truth, somehow contained within the confines of a mere genre picture – more than the sum of its parts. No doubt you will eventually make it into the canon and take your place among the greats. And if you don’t, the failing will lie with us rather than you.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Sunshine.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

75 thoughts on “Sunshine: A Valentine’s Day letter to a film that deserves more love

  1. This is a really well written piece! I watched Sunshine last night and I absolutely loved it, I’m surprised that I’ve never heard anyone talk about it before! It’s such an honest film in terms of the way it constantly makes you think about humanity and how we make decisions. It’s a seriously underrated film!

    • Thanks, Claire. It’s definitely an underrated piece of cinema. Hopefully, one day popular sentiment will turn in its favour and be recognised as a classic.

  2. Pingback: » Movie Review – Sunshine Fernby Films

  3. I enjoyed sunshine when it came out, then it was flogged on tele almost one weekend a month or ages, the rights must have been cheap. I don’t agree that it’s a masterpiece of cinema or that it’s terrible but I certainly wouldn’t agree that it’s underrated. sunshine deserves a six out of 10, there really are better things to be getting on with.

  4. 100% agree. I feel it’s the most realistic FEELING space movie ever. Doesn’t matter whether the science in it is perfect or if it’s nonsense – at every single moment I feel like I’m really trapped inside a spaceship that’s on a suicide mission.
    I love the way the movie balances those many moments of intense cold and intense heat.
    When you watch J.J. Abrams directing style in the first scene of Star Trek (09) you can see that he was heavily influenced by what Boyle did in Sunshine – and it paid off well.

  5. I’m a big Danny Boyle fan, and I also really enjoyed Sunshine. I think the problem he was up against in that movie is having to fulfill the tremendously high expectations people have of him.

  6. Really enjoyed that movie, but not a huge fan of the third act. In its defense, the movie had to end the way it did and it’s hard to imagine it getting there without what happens in the third act.

  7. The post is original, I like it. But Sunshine a good film? C’mon! The idea of a nuclear reaction of all fisible material on earth doing something to the sun… It doesn’t make any sense. Certainly they didn’t aks any science advisor about that. That’s the reason it will never be with the big movies. The atmosphere is good, the space stuff in the movie is good. But that idea of using a nuclear reaction to ignite again the sun… it’s like “here is all we know about physics and your plan doesn’t make any sense at all, but doesn’t matter, we are going to make a big explosion because it’s funny”. Sunshine it’s basically the same as “The Core”, and fails because of the same reason. But as I said, if one forgets that they don’t have any logic and just watch them for the ambient, then they are funny movies.

    • Hi Leo – thanks for the feedback 🙂

      While I’m sure that you are absolutely right about the scientific inaccuracy of the film, it had never occurred to me to view the film as anything other than allegorical or analogical (although, it makes perfect sense for you to do so, given the film’s basis in science).

      In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever really viewed a science fiction film in terms of its scientific accuracy, because pretty much all of them are primarily designed as a mirror with which to reflect on the present or on mankind more generally. For me personally, I think it would be impossible to get through an episode of Star Trek, a minute of Star Wars or Tarkovsky’s Solaris if I didn’t forget about that element.

      But, as I said, it does make sense to take scientific accuracy into account. Perhaps the fact that I wrote a thesis on science fiction disaster cinema during the Cold War and Post-9/11 has numbed me to the effects of poorly conceived scientific concepts.

      Either way, I’m willing to back Sunshine all the way.

      P.S. I believe Professor Brian Cox was the principle scientific advisor on the film, and he has been engaged in some interesting debate around the accuracy of the film worth looking at.

      • Thanks James. I understand that. In my case is very difficult to not think of the scientific accuracy. But in some cases I manage to forget it and enjoy the other parts of the stories.
        When this things happen in stories, I think that a good way of approaching them is inventing some new technology or just something completely different and not trying to explain how it works.
        For example, Star Wars is very funny because they don’t loose too much time explaining how things work. And about Star Trek, they explain sometimes how it works, but even they use very advanced technology or very diffuse descriptions that you can’t say if it is possible or not.
        My opinion is that Sunshine will be better if instead of making a big fision bomb, they use for example a matter-antimatter bomb. Or something completely different.

  8. I’ve been wondering what happened to that movie… I mean, when I saw it both me and the person I saw it with fell absolutely in love with it. In that way were you’re sitting with your mouth wide open in awe, then you’re crying, then you’re… Well, amazed again. But no one else seemed to have ever heard of it, or want to see it. It just vanished. It really did deserve more.

  9. I loved this movie when I first saw it, and it’s been years but I still remember how beautiful it was. I especially loved the last image (well, next to last) of the one character watching the nuclear reaction, watching the sun’s plasma coming to devour him and the look of wonder, excitement, and acceptance on his face. That film gave me goosebumps. I think the creepiest part of that movie was how those two characters became obsessed with the sunlight. You see the one from the old ship and he’s just a monster, it makes no sense to you, but then they show you the transformation with the other character. Just like you were talking about, man’s insignificance in relation to the universe. It is terrific in the literal, denotative meaning of the word, as well as awesome in the same way.
    I’m going to have to find it again now, since it’s been so long, and you’ve put it back in my mind (which I thank you for).

    I came here to thank you for following my blog, I guess it was good timing that I did so soon after this post. When it comes to movies I can enjoy what the swarming masses enjoy, but I love to find the films that are often over looked, but so great. I would love any suggestions you might have, just in general. I’m not afraid of subtitles.
    Thank you again, both for the follow and reminding me of this film.

  10. I love the movie too ! Not only is Alex Garland a great writer but this is one of my favorite movies with a great actor, Cilian Murphy. One other thing I thought was great about the movie was the stunning visuals and that sunlight itself is used as its own character in the movie. yeah, really great oh and thanks for following my blog.

  11. Fun post (love the format), and you’re absolutely right — “Sunshine” deserves much more respect. I thought it was great when it first came out, and it’s really stuck with me in the years since. (I spent forever hunting for the soundtrack, which was stuck in some kind of legal-rights purgatory. Finally got my hands on a copy and listen to it pretty regularly.)

    My take on the third act: It’s bizarre and doesn’t completely work, but I dig it anyway. It’s ambitious, and we need more ambition in science fiction. Most of what passes for SF lately ignores the most creative aspects of the genre. They’re usually just action films that happen to be set in space or “the future.”

  12. You are more or less spot on with this one James, and I like the letter format. I also rate the cast, Mark Strong, always reliable, and the woefully under-used Benny Wong (who I actually know fairly well, so bigging him up unashamedly). But not in the same paragraph as Blade Runner, that GOD of films, please! Regards as ever, have a nice V-Day. Pete

  13. Nice post. I’m a big fan too (fellow admirer?), and the third act doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the film for me. What does detract a little from wholehearted infatuation is that Sunshine is basically (isn’t it?) a total rip-off of Event Horizon. But I guess that’s like criticising one beautiful woman for being no more beautiful than another.

    • Thanks!

      They certainly have a few aesthetic similarities, although qualitatively Event Horizon is pretty much a stock-standard horror film (and a kind of degenerated spin on Tarkovsky’s Solaris) whereas Sunshine is concerned with far larger themes. I think Paul W. S. Anderson would be quite flattered at the comparison, though.

    • Wait … I just saw a reference to “Event Horizon”, possibly one of my favorite horror movies of all time. I would never have even thought to check out Sunshine (I mean, they seriously named it that?) if you hadn’t compared it to “Event Horizon”. I figured “Sunshine” was just a feel-good movie from the name. Now I’m going to have to check it out.

  14. I like the form of your review. Very inventive. When I saw the blog title I thought it was going to be about that sappy other Sunshine film. You know: ‘Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy..’ I’m glad it wasn’t, this sounds interesting.

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