Ashes to Ashes, Stardust to Stardust: Watching Sunshine during a Pandemic
**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the movie Sunshine.**
“At the end of time, a moment will come when just one man remains. Then the moment will pass. Man will be gone. There will be nothing to show that we were ever here… but stardust.”1
The beginning of the film Sunshine is the end of the world, and not by the “fire” of climate change or nuclear holocaust, but by ice.2 Sunshine (2007) is an existential sci-fi thriller directed by Danny Boyle, written by Alex Garland, and starring a talented, multi-cultural ensemble including Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cliff Curtis, and Benedict Wong. Fifty years in the future, the earth has been plunged into a solar winter: our sun is unexpectedly dying long before its time, and unless humanity performs an audacious Hail Mary attempt at reigniting it, mankind faces extinction. A crew of eight aboard the aptly named Icarus II are tasked with flying a bomb the size of Manhattan Island into the heart of the sun, detonating it to trigger a mini–Big Bang, creating a star-within-a-star. We witness the psychological toll this massive responsibility exacts on the crew, how dependent people are on forces outside of their control, and how fragile human life is in the vast hostility of space.
Sunshine frightens us with the fact of nature’s entropy, that everything tends toward disorder; that the sun, which all life relies upon, is not eternal. In the words of my pastor, “[Nature] is awesome and interesting to us, but it has no interest in us,”3 and it will kill us. Sunshine is not the sci-fi joy-ride of Star Trek or Star Wars, and the mission of Icaraus II is no hopeful adventure but an act of pure desperation. In consultation with scientists from the CERN laboratory, director Danny Boyle aimed at plausibility and scientific realism. His filmmaking gets under our skin with flashes of color, eye-wincing brightness, cramped camera angles, and music fraught with tension, terror, and ecstasy. The crew is one simple miscalculation—one all-too-human misstep—away from being frozen by the black abyss of space, immolated by the sun’s brilliant power, suffocated in the ship’s claustrophobic corridors, or murdered by the destructive impulses of the human heart under duress. The story progresses from one terrible death to another, as the crew’s numbers dwindle and their mission hangs in the balance. The weight that was spread across eight pairs of shoulders is eventually borne by one.
During filming, the director would regularly remind the actors that “every bit of you is just a bit of exploded star,”4 to put them in the right frame of mind. “Stardust”5 is sprinkled throughout the movie in dialogue and image. It’s a verbal and visual reminder of humanity’s physical origins and transience. Sometimes stardust is spoken of with the bracing sobriety of a Lenten service marking foreheads with ash; sometimes it’s an epithet, a blessing, or a euphemism for goodbye. The nihilist hymn that opens this piece, spoken by Sunshine’s villain, makes stardust the symbol of human meaninglessness.A good story doesn’t make you feel more afraid than you were before; a good story helps you see the best way to act in the midst of your anxious fear, providing you with hope.
Every choice the crew of Icarus II makes and every problem they attempt to solve is undertaken with the crushing awareness that personal failure means human extinction. There are a variety of ways to engage with this uniquely human combination of responsibility and mortality. The most reflexive is self-preservation, the treasuring of oneself in conjunction with the cheapening of other selves; if there is a cost to be paid, someone else is going to pay it. Another possible response is self-sabotage or self-destruction, which cheapens the value of all selves, including your own, so that when it’s all thrown away, it doesn’t hurt so much. The hardest path to take is self-sacrifice, which despite the pain holds all selves dear, including your own, and yet embraces a willingness to pay the cost for others.
The first two acts of the film dance between self-preservation and self-sacrifice, since it is set in a dangerous environment with scant resources. But the last third of the film shifts to compare self-sacrifice with self-destruction. Because this is inherently an internal, psychological problem (rather than a problem of external competition), the tone of the tale changes and becomes markedly more symbolic, almost to the point of magical realism. The scriptwriter Alex Garland sets the stage for an intellectual thriller, but turns the tables on us part-way through, causing us to question what kind of story is this anyway, a horror movie? I thought I knew the rules of this universe, but now I’m not so sure. Most negative reviewers cited the third act’s tonal shift as the one thing they didn’t like about Sunshine. And yet the surprise works: it’s not a pleasant one, but it reveals a startling truth—not only is nature out to get you, but in a profound and creepy way, you are out to get yourself.
The self-destructive saboteur of the third act shows us that not all forms of intentional dying are the same: the suicide-bomber and the suffering Savior both willingly walk to their own deaths, but for different reasons that engender opposite outcomes. The physicist who designed and oversees the stellar bomb, Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), eventually takes on a sacrificial role like Jesus, only to be opposed by a suicidal Judas who betrays the mission. For us to fully see the courage of a Christ-figure walking the Way of Sorrows, we must see its mirror opposite in cowardice and nihilism. G. K. Chesterton describes the courageous hero as one who
needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. … He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. … [Christianity] has marked the limits… in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.6
One by one the crew members die, until only Capa is left: death is now inevitable for him as well, but it’s not inevitable for everyone on earth who depends on him. Alone, Capa must manually trigger the explosion of the payload from within it. Kneeling down with the activation equipment on scaffolding that is (uncoincidentally) in the shape of a cross, he begins to work with seconds to spare. His hands shake with anxiety, his voice whispers desperate prayers of please, please. He rises and looks around, watching for signs, waiting to see if what he has done is enough. Will it work? Is it finished?
The new star begins gradually, glimmering and swelling at Capa’s back. It is the best of human ingenuity and audacity, unfolding before the one chosen to represent mankind and execute its final act of hope. The bomb hurls itself into the sun where it is penetrated and enveloped. Time slows. In speechless awe, Capa’s eyes open like an infant trying to take in the bright light of a new world: he meets the sun face to face, stretching out a hand in wonder, smiling as if in greeting. The music, the light, the visual effects, the emotion—everything director Danny Boyle and actor Cillian Murphy bring to this climactic moment—proclaims: this is holy. We see an image of a man standing in the center of a cross; the mined heart of the earth exploding behind him, the stellar glory of heaven before him, as he dies for the life of the world. Heaven and earth meet in Capa. God and creation touch through one man in an explosion of glory, and humanity is saved.
Garland intended the climactic moment of his story to be a wish-fulfillment projection in which Capa’s emotional need creates an imaginary God, but his attempted irony falters: the symbolism rings true. We can’t help but admire Capa; we don’t pity him. Capa’s moment of mysticism isn’t a mistake, but a divine meeting. My sense is that director Danny Boyle’s latent childhood Catholicism stole the show. Capa’s death is a symbolic crucifixion, a voluntary death for the life of the world, the moment where God’s apparent absence becomes God’s overwhelming presence. All of the main characters die, and yet the ending is—astoundingly—a happy one, dearly and willingly paid for.
You may be thinking, the real world is scary enough right now—why watch a movie where everyone dies? A good story doesn’t make you feel more afraid than you were before; a good story helps you see the best way to act in the midst of your anxious fear, providing you with hope. Sunshine’s symbols seep down under the skin where our fears hide, and where our courage lies waiting to be kindled. In the words of Neil Gaiman, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”7
Many of us are in a season of shut-down, social distancing, quarantine, and emergency. According to the church calendar, we are also in the season of Lent; two reasons why “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” may be at the forefront of our minds in ways they seldom are. The “dragon” of death exists in the tension of our shoulders, in the pits of our stomachs, in our short tempers, and in our strained eyes glued to the news. It exists in the mild cough we can’t seem to shake, the self-chiding every time we touch our faces, in the grocery shelves bizarrely emptied of toilet paper, and in our well-stocked pantries. If you’re anything like me, then the feeling of being prey to natural forces often drowns out the call to pray. It’s a terrifying thing to admit deep down, we are stardust.
And yet, in God’s eyes we are beloved dust. God emptied Himself and became one of us in Christ, in solidarity with our mortality. He knows us not only as a maker knows what He has made: He knows us from the inside out by participating in life and death, and in all the fears and struggles we face.
It’s true that we are dust now, but we will not always be so. God knows how to transform mortal dust into “immortal diamond.”8 The resurrected Christ transfigured stardust into a new physicality not subject to decay and disease, the first fruits of His promise to us in our groaning and anxiety. Christ is the sun that (unlike our own) will never die, the perpetual source of life and light. He will slake our thirst for immortality with both “the spring of the water of life”9 and a celebratory “feast of well-aged wine,”10 while the cup He pours for Himself is death. “He will swallow up death forever,”11 draining it to the dregs, and death will be no more. We who began as merely stardust will one day, through Christ’s loving sacrifice, shine with Him like stars that do not burn out.
1. Sunshine script by Alex Garland.
2. Fire and Ice by Robert Frost.
3. Renewal of All Creation, sermon by Wade Bradshaw.
4. The Space Odyssey of Danny Boyle by Dennis Lim, New York Times; July 8, 2007.
5. The idea of humans as “stardust” or “star stuff” was popularized by Carl Sagan and reiterated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson in Cosmos.
6. Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton.
7. Epigraph of Coraline by Neil Gaiman, his recollection of reading G. K. Chesterton.
8. That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection, poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
9. Revelation 21:6 ESV.
10. Isaiah 25:6 ESV.
11. Isaiah 25:8 ESV.