Science goes to the movies: Sunshine

Who do you call when there’s and asteroid that’s taken a strong dislike to Earth? Which nerdy-but-cool-cable dude do you grab to take out invading aliens with a computer virus? The answers are of course obvious. But outside the trashtastic exploits of Messrs Willis and Goldblum, if something catastophic were to happen in space risking the lives of us little Earthers, wouldn’t you prefer to send rock-star physicist Professor Brian Cox to go up there and sort it?

I have a strong visceral adoration for Danny Boyle’s film Sunshine; it was a crazy enterprise, a British Sci-Fi film directed by a man known for his amusing but grim portrayal of heroine addicts in Edinburgh and was to later win an Oscar for a fairytale about the slums of Mumbai. On paper it shouldn’t work; it hadn’t been done before – it was a big budget British Sci-Fi film, and it still hasn’t made back its money.

But why am I so attached to this film? I’ve been lucky enough to see it in some killer screenings; first, I was at the cast and crew premier in Leicester Square; it was introduced enthusiastically by Boyle who quipped that he didn’t remember us all working on the film. Cillian Murphy, very awkwardly, said nothing while introducing it. I’ve seen it a few more times, I have the DVD, I now own the soundtrack after the legal wranglings over it were finally settled.

This summer, the BFI did a special event – a discussion entitled In the Shadow of the Sun – hosted by the science geek and film nerd Adam Rutherford who is an editor for the journal Nature, Professor Brian Cox, Honor Harger – an artist, Dr Lucie Green – a researcher studying the sun, and luckily (because he should have been editing 127 Days) Danny Boyle. It was a great discussion on the sun, its influences, science fiction, and art using the sun. I can’t really cover it here, because quite honestly, my memory isn’t that good. But please head over to the BFI here and here to see the discussion for yourself. This was followed by a screening of Sunshine in NFT 1.

If you’ve never seen Sunshine, let me tell you it is a visually stunning film, the digital representations of the sun are just breathtaking. I recommend seeing it on a big screen if you ever get the chance. In typical grandiose movie fashion, 50 years in our future the sun is dying. An American-Asian team have been assembled to kick-start it with a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan Island. Despite its somewhat idiotic premise, it manages to stop itself being dumb-as-nuts by being utterly serious. The crew are weary after 16 months in a tin can, and are just about to lose contact with Earth. The first mission, the Icarus I, set out 7 years previous and nothing has been heard from them. The crew of the Icarus II, not knowing why the first mission failed, are understandably tetchy. It’s a wondrous and terrifying trek into the unknown. Suffice to say, things go somewhat awry. There’s also a a lot of debate about whether or not the final act works; the film goes a bit wacko (a la 2001), suffering from some high-speed philosophical shizzle with a sun-crazed, overly sticky Mark Strong

Of interest to me is the films depiction of the crew, many of them scientists. Robert Capa (played by Cillian Murphy) is the physicist who has designed the nuclear bomb that will restart the sun – Earth’s last hope. It’s still purely theoretical, no one knows whether it will work. Capa isn’t your stereotypical scientist though – he’s under 40 for a start. On this ship, however, he is quite a way out of comfort zone; he’s a researcher, not an astronaut. Other characters are well depicted; Chris Evans as Mace and Hiroyuki Sanada as captain Kaneda – both career astronauts. There’s Searle, a psychiatrist who gets a little bit too interested in the psychological aspects of the sun. And then there’s biologist Corazon, pilot Cassie, comms man Harvey.

One of the more interesting aspects about the film is its take on the science. Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland had no idea how to tackle the science, so they brought in Professor Brian Cox. The end product is the result of compromises in science vs story telling – they could have made a perfectly accurate documentary, but it wouldn’t have made a good film. Collectively, they found ways around the science. In his commentary on the DVD, Cox discusses the finer points of cinematising science.  For example, theoretical existence of super-symmetrical particles, more stable than matter, that could eat the sun. He points to inaccuracies like the difficulty in getting objects into orbits around Mercury and the sun. His commentary on the film is enlightening, it seems the cast not only learned bite-size chunks of science, but – Murphy in particular – studied Cox himself. Cillian Murphy watched Professor Cox during scientific meetings, taking on some of his traits for the role of Robert Capa. The screenplay itself is rather brilliantly written, in that Murphy’s character feels like a scientist.

Cox has said on many occasions that scientists generally become scientist as a spiritual response to nature. Remember when you were a kid? When you see something so amazing, so astounding, that you can’t put it into words. This amazing sense of wonder is the sort of thing that gets some of us interested in the natural world. As we grow up, we lose that sense of wonder, but we are stil left with an interest and a fascination, and sometimes even a livelihood. Capa in the film has studied  physics, his work may have felt like drudgery at times, but as he and the crew come face to face with the ever-present theistic fiery orb, he, and others, becomes humbled and awed. In the finale, Capa’s work is put to the test and at the same time, he is utterly dwarfed, made insignificant, and filled with wonder, by his encounter with the deific sun.

One of the reasons I love this film so much is this confrontation and appreciation of nature in the form of the sun. In a way, it rekindles in me that sense of wonder I once felt as a child looking up a the sky. This film is almost unique in its depiction of a realistic scientist that other scientists can relate to.

Here’s one of my favourite bits of the film, note the amazing music – it’s a bit spoilerific though.

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