Sunshine – mission on the cheap


Sunshine was a very bad film but, like many commercial but pretentious films, it was filled with material for some fun deconstruction. Religion, science, democracy and even epistemology, it was all packed in there in the most splendidly confused way.

The film tells the story of a crew of astronauts sent to space to re-ignite the dying sun by detonating a super nuclear bomb and sneak away in time not to be wiped out. A previous mission failed leaving no trace of the spaceship ominously called Icarus I. With no fear of tempting fate, the ship of the second mission is called Icarus II, what could possibly go wrong? During the expedition, the astronauts come across Icarus I, which seems to have life in it. They discuss the option of risking their lives and taking a detour to give Icarus II a hand, but snubbed the democratic vote in favour of leaving the decision in the hands of an ‘expert’. Being scientists, they regard ‘knowledge’ as the most important thing and are happy to entrust their lives to the far too young to be wise Capa (Cillian Murphy). Capa stands in his disco-like room asking the computer questions and brings back the responsum “heads or tail”, so much for expert knowledge!

  • Sunshine espouses a rather simplistic notion of science that echoes the Enlightenment’s rejection of authority (the Captain) in favour of so-called Reason. Yet, it is also dismissive of democracy taking away from the crew the power to decide over their own lives. Indeed, in the beginning modern scientific culture hailed a wider and more democratic audience. That was soon forgotten as ‘scientific knowledge’ (constructed within a utilitarian framework) began establishing its own authority. As the postmoderns argued, we swapped ‘traditional’ authority for ‘scientific’ authority. However, there is no democracy aboard of Icarus II so the crew are stuffed.
  • The scientist knows best … but why a physicist? After all, it’s about a life and death decision that is exquisitely moral, not technical. It is once again a utilitarian notion of science as the only legitimate (and prescriptive) knowledge.

So there they go, they change the route and pick up the hitchhikers from the broken down Icarus I. The guy who changes the route forgets about the position of the sun and the ship gets damaged. The state of the art spaceship is full of bright lights, but no sat-nav. He cries hysterically that there were many calculations to make and that he made a mistake. So the ship needs some fixing and the Captain pops out to sort it out. A bit of hammering here and polishing there, it’ll be like new! While he’s at it he can’t resist the attraction of the sun that will soon be in trajectory. From inside, the crew shout at unison to get back, but you know what is like, you’re out there floating in space with the sun shining … the Captain is wiped out by the wind of the sun.

  • They can’t do maths and ignore the perils of sun rays’ exposure. Incompetent idiocy aside, the not so subtle point was to depict the mysterious allure of the sun. It’s an example of the mystification of science and scientific knowledge à la Carl Sagan. Science, especially physics, is a progressive discovery of Truth rather than just gaining knowledge about the physical world as far as our minds allow it. Nice piece on this by Margaret Wertheim.

Four members of the crew board Icarus I, but, as the two ships cannot attach to each other, they need to jump to make it back inside Icarus II. One gets the protective space gear, the brave one stays behind to be roasted by the sun and the other two cover themselves in kitchen foil for the jump. Needless to say one of them doesn’t make it, freezes and crumbles into pieces. It’s cold out there. Several problems and deaths later, the computer tells Capa that there’s an extra crew member on board. Instead of telling the remaining crew, he pops around to see who it is. He doesn’t even have the time to put the kettle on that he is attacked. The attacker was one of the crew of Icarus I, who took too much sun and, aside from a very bad sunburn, he’s become a bit of a ‘sun fundamentalist’, preaching that if the sun is dying it is the will of God and he’s God-like because he’s survived the sunburns etc. He also transforms himself into the only other remaining crew member, which I assume comes with the nutrient properties of the sun.

  • They were bound to throw religion in the mix, except religion comes in the shape of fundamentalism and fatalism (the sun fanatic), whilst the religiosity of physics is the Truth. It is so true that Capa makes the ultimate sacrifice by accomplishing the mission and re-igniting the sun. Such self-sacrifice might appear as hubris in the eyes of fatalist religious people, but it is the pure Truth of science that saves humanity. Science is thus transformed into a path to Truth. The mystification is complete: the religion of science has displaced the religion of (the Christian Protestant transcendent) God. All is well, except for poor David Hume who’s been turning violently in his grave.
  • Sunshine‘s interpretation of hubris stops at being a challenge to nature/God through personal self-destruction, necessary in order to save life. Yet, the meaning of hubris is lack of humility, which leads one to believe oneself and one’s point of view to be the only legitimate one. Sunshine seems to regard scientific knowledge as the only path to Truth. It reeks of the popular scientism that makes mince meat of philosophy of science and ethics. Natural science is a form of knowledge, but, when it comes to decide what is right and what is wrong, with Hume, we can say that it ain’t much good for it.
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