Space Crews and Human Error: Why Sunshine’s Tonal Shift Matters

When I introduced some of my friends to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s 2007 sci-fi thriller Sunshine, I received a mixed response. Though they all seemed to generally enjoy it, especially the star studded cast and well fleshed-out characters, there was a stark difference in how the film’s third act was received by them. This comes as no surprise to me really, because the general audience reacted similarly after the film’s release as well. Much of this can be attributed to its marketing, which swung from the typical sci-fi drama, to a slasher through and through. Both marketing strategies are somewhat accurate given that the film itself mixes tones and tropes, but as Sunshine veers heavily into slasher territory in its third act (whether intentionally or not), I would say that’s a more accurate way to describe it. The third act ‘ 180°’ is led by the film’s big bad, Pinbacker (Mark Strong). In typical slasher fashion, he’s somewhat otherworldly, has a distinct “look” (think Freddy Krueger, but nude), and a murder streak. On the other side of the spectrum, we have Capa (Cillian Murphy), who is reserved, resourceful, a bit of an outsider, and the only one who can stop Pinbacker. In this way, Capa acts as the film’s central character and final boy. Boyle characterizes his film as a more cerebral and “serious” sci-fi, and those elements are very much present and communicated through the characters and conflicts, but i’d argue that at its core, Sunshine is a slasher. Though much of its “horror” is characterized by the vast emptiness of space and the dread of being left in the hands of the cosmos, this is all intimately tied into Pinbacker’s transformation into a villain, and thus, the film’s deep dive into the slasher genre isn’t that out of place after all.

Sunshine | Moving Picture Company & Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sunshine focuses on a space crew made up of 9 members, all important and interesting in their own ways but for the sake of this analysis I’ll be focusing on some central ones like Capa and Mace (Chris Evans). The film’s plot plays out as follows: After a first failed attempt by Icarus I, the Icarus II members (our central crew) are tasked with a mission to send a stellar bomb into a dying sun, with the intention of reviving it and saving all of mankind in the process. Each crew member is wholly dedicated to this mission, fully aware that this may cost them their lives, and that messing up is 100% not an option. The crew gets along fairly well and are all willing to work together to the best of their ability–each member has been carefully selected for this specific mission too, so they all have high expectations for each other. There’s tension of course, as a result of the claustrophobic setting, and because the entire situation itself is stressful, to say the least. A lot of this tension resides between Capa and Mace, especially. Mace is the crew’s pragmatist, focusing on solutions that will result in a successful mission, and Capa has a similar mindset, though he doesn’t show it as intensely as Mace does. Capa is also the crew’s physicist–the only one who can deliver the payload correctly– because of this, Mace places a lot of trust in him and has high expectations as he’s vital to their mission. He’s protective over Capa, as one of the most dedicated members to the mission, the best thing Mace can do is ensure the safety and well-being of the physicist tasked with saving mankind. I’d be lying if I said the dynamic between the two of them wasn’t homoerotic, every scuffle they get into has an underlying romantic/sexual tension, and by the end of their mission Mace sacrifices himself to ensure Capa’s safety. 

Sunshine | Moving Picture Company & Fox Searchlight Pictures

NOTE: Boyle said it himself in the director’s commentary that they’re homoerotic, so there’s really no denying what they have. 

A larger tension, however, envelops the crew at their first real turn for the worst. When Icarus II crew decides to rendezvous with Icarus I after hearing a distress signal from their ship (which they will later find out was sent by Pinbacker), Trey is tasked with changing their coordinates. In the process of doing so, he forgets to reset the shields to block out the sunlight. A simple mistake, really, but in this setting it’s a fatal one. It results in the death of their captain, Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), and the destruction of their oxygen room and other essential resources. The members then have no choice but to step inside the Icarus II ship–Pinbacker’s domain. Unbeknownst to them, this one action will have them violently plucked off one by one. 

Human error is something that shapes much of horror, and is especially present in the slasher genre. Taking one wrong turn while driving, forgetting to charge your phone before heading into that abandoned cabin in the woods. They’re all simple human mistakes, but they wield deadly consequences given the genre and setting. Space is a wheelhouse for horror, it stirs up conflicts like no other, claustrophobia, and most importantly: existential dread. 

Sunshine | Moving Picture Company & Fox Searchlight Pictures

Existential dread is ultimately what catalyzes Pinbacker’s transformation into a slasher villain, and the crew gets small clues of his looming presence throughout their journey. A distress signal, a burned-to-the-crisp Icarus I crew in the ship’s observation room, a missing knife, and Trey’s staged death. Each small miscalculation the Icarus II crew makes, every step they take into unknowingly dangerous territory, cements their fate. This journey into the killer’s domain is visualized when the Icarus II crew boards Icarus I. The abandoned Icarus I ship is akin to a haunted house, it’s dark, skeletal, and dead–aside from the overgrown oxygen room, which is a sign that the ship has been abandoned for quite some time. With the Icarus II members under the impression that everyone is dead, Pinbacker can board Icarus I and access their stellar bomb. 

Pinbacker’s time spent stranded in space has morphed him into something nearly unrecognizable; unable to process the situation or contend with himself, Pinbacker’s dread consumes him entirely, creating a villain desperate to manifest some kind of meaning in the abandonment he’s undergone amidst the uncaring cosmos. His origin mirrors the current situation the Icarus II members find themselves in, and in a way, each kill is indicative of his unwillingness to accept reality as it pushes the Icarus II crew further into chaos, increasingly unable to fix their situation. Through their deaths, Pinbacker embraces his fantasy of being one with the cosmos, hoping that it will finally embrace him instead of destroying him from the inside-out. This never manifests, of course, Capa saves the day thanks to Mace’s sacrifice, and his own sheer will and determination. Many final boys experience some kind of transformation through their journey just as final girls do, fighting off evil and saving the day leaves them as a changed person. It’s the end of journey catharsis, and at the end of his, Capa is fully embraced by the cosmos, engulfed by the sun and it’s not terrifying like Pinbacker is, it’s actually beautiful. He’s at peace with himself and with the fact that he’s completed his mission–the sun will continue shining. 

Sunshine | Moving Picture Company & Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sunshine is a surprise. What presents itself as a cerebral sci-fi drama, at its core, is a slasher–and that’s okay! That’s great, even. Though this genre-bending might not sit with some viewers, it certainly sat and stayed with me. Space is terrifying, it is vast and unknowable, it brings about our darkest fears about death and existence. To me, it’s one of the most interesting settings for horror to unfold, and Sunshine explores that in an exciting and clever way.

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Andy (They/Them) is a horror writer and film critic based in Southern California. They have a love for cyborgs, robots, and all kinds of monsters, especially vampires and fish-men. Andy is also a big sci-fi fan, and very much enjoys when sci-fi and horror collide.

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