Today's film: Sunshine (2007).
When I first saw Sunshine on the list of films Final Girl had chosen for the SHOCKtober line-up, I have to admit that I questioned why it would be on there. Sunshine was not a horror movie as far as I knew, and I had even seen the movie once before, back when it was first released on DVD.
I had forgotten something.
For most of its running time, Sunshine fits comfortably within the science fiction genre. It's set in the not too distant future, when the sun has started to sputter out, putting the Earth into a solar winter. If something isn't done about the sun, this new ice age will lead to the extinction of the human race.
The solution that has been devised involves flying a stellar bomb, with a mass equivalent to Manhattan, to the sun and dropping it on the star, hopefully rejuvenating the ball of fire at the center of our solar system. The bomb is to be delivered by a ship manned with a crew of eight people and called Icarus, named after the character from Greek mythology who attempted to escape from the island of Crete on wings made of feathers and wax. Icarus was so thrilled by having the ability to fly that he didn't heed his father's warning not to fly too close to the sun, and when the heat from the sun melted the wax, Icarus fell into the sea and drowned. It's sort of fitting for the mission, but it's not the most positive name to give the ship that you hope will save your planet.
Icarus did not deliver its payload. Contact was lost with the ship and it's been missing, somewhere out in space, for seven years.
The film focuses on the second try, the mission of Icarus II. This is the last chance, there will be no third try if Icarus II fails, all of the fissile materials needed to make the stellar bomb have been wiped out. As with the first mission, the responsibility of saving the world weighs on the shoulders of eight crew members, who we join sixteen months into their journey. They're fifty-five million miles from Earth and entering the communications dead zone, for the rest of the way to the sun they will have no contact with anyone back home.
Our narrator is physicist Robert Capa, who in his final transmission to his family tells them how they can know if the mission is successful: since it takes eight minutes for light to travel from the sun to the Earth, extra brightness should be noticeable eight minutes after they deliver the payload. "So if you wake up one morning and it's a particularly beautiful day, you'll know we made it."
The rest of the occupants of Icarus II include the captain, the navigator, the pilot, the engineer, the communications officer, a biologist who takes care of the ship's oxygen garden, and the doctor/psych officer. The film does a good job of letting us get to know who each of them are as people, and the roles are filled by the great ensemble cast of Cillian Murphy, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Michelle Yeoh, and Cliff Curtis.
My favorite of the bunch is future Captain America Evans as engineer Mace, who's willing make the tough decisions and sacrifices necessary to make sure the mission goes through for the sake of everyone on Earth.
As Icarus II flies past Mercury, they're shocked to pick up a distress beacon from Icarus I, which is still intact between Mercury and the sun. After a debate over whether or not they should shift their trajectory slightly and meet up with the other ship, they decide to, for one reason - they might be able to get Icarus I's stellar bomb and double their payload, bettering the chance of their mission succeeding. There isn't likely to still be anyone alive on Icarus I, there was only enough food on board to last eight people three years. But maybe, if there are less than eight people...
While Icarus II heads toward its space rendezvous and nears the end of its mission, its crew deals with many problems that range from mechanical to the psychological issues and spiritual questions that stem from the fact that they all know the odds are not in favor of them surviving this mission, like their predecessors didn't survive their attempt. Some have already come to terms with and accepted their fate, others are still looking for answers.
One man who did a lot of searching for answers and thinking about religion during his trip to the sun was Pinbacker, the captain of Icarus I. When the second ship meets up with the first and members of the II crew board the ship that's been lost for years, they see a video left behind by Pinbacker that suggests the man lost his mind. Disfigured and rambling into camera, this video is the film's first hint of horror, 53 minutes in.
It soon becomes clear that Icarus I failed on purpose. Pinbacker didn't want it to succeed, he sabotaged the mission and the ship. Pinbacker is still alive, the last survivor of Icarus I, and he doesn't want the second mission to succeed either. 73 minutes in, the crew of Icarus II realizes they have an extra person on their ship. Pinbacker snuck on board while I and II were connected, and his presence officially turns Sunshine into a horror movie.
Pinbacker is covered in burn scars and with knife in hand, he sets out to kill the Icarus II crew one-by-one. He's never clearly seen, the views of him either altered by bright light or a blurring effect or the shot being out of focus. His voice has been put through a filter, he can carry men around by the throat, he punches through glass walls and impales people. He knocks the power out on Icarus II, leaving a pretty female crew member to walk the halls with a faulty flashlight. Played by Mark Strong in one of his many villain turns, Pinbacker is something straight out of a supernatural slasher movie. He is Space Freddy.
The key to understanding this new character is actually Icarus II psych officer Searle, who isn't even around anymore by the time Pinbacker is terrorizing the ship. Searle and Pinbacker are very similar characters, they both become obsessed with the sunlight during their trips. Searle liked to sit in the observation room and let the light stream in as strongly as possible without it being dangerous, he would tell the others how refreshing it felt to sit in total light - it envelopes you, becomes you. Pinbacker knows the feeling so well that he has allowed himself to be cooked. When the Icarus II captain is killed by being fried by the sun, Searle tries to communicate with him through his headset, asking him, "What can you see?", taking the obsession with sunlight to another level as well as bringing up questions about the afterlife, a hope that the man could describe a glimpse into the beyond. Pinbacker is very religious, and in fact that's why he's on a spree of murder and sabotage. That's where the characters of Searle and Pinbacker go in separate directions. As Cliff Curtis, the actor who played Searle, says, his character is willing to sacrifice himself for the others. That's why he's not around to face Pinbacker. Pinbacker, on the other hand, is sacrificing others for himself.
Pinbacker believes that if he kills everyone on the Icarus ships, stopping them from dropping the stellar bombs and allowing everyone on Earth to die, he will eventually be the last person alive in the universe. One man alone with God. Then he too will pass, and he will have successfully taken us all to Heaven.
The late addition of Pinbacker makes Sunshine somewhat divisive, some viewers love the movie until he shows up, then feel that it goes completely off the rails. It is a strange and unexpected turn of events, the third act of the film dealing with this hideous sun demon, so to speak. His motivation is a very interesting concept, but I'm not sure about the execution. I do sort of have to agree that the movie falls apart a bit in its final thirty minutes, but since it was always the intention of writer Alex Garland to have the film deal with religious ideas in such a way, I can't say it was the wrong choice for the movie. That was the movie.
So even if I do have some issues with the final moments, I still think it's a really good film that contains some great ideas and is full of fantastic visuals. And major kudos for naming Pinbacker after Dan O'Bannon's character Pinback from John Carpenter's awesome sci-fi comedy student film Dark Star.