Sunshine: Why It’s a Great Science Fiction Film

My brother-in-blog Mike Doolittle took a break from writing on religion and philosophy for a day to talk about the science fiction feature Sunshine, directed by Academy Award winning director Danny Boyle (Slum Dog Millionaire, 127 Hours, 28 Days Later, Trainspotting, etc.).

Mike’s article, The (pseudo) science of the film "Sunshine", nitpicks the minor scientific blunders of the film. He claims that:

“…in the case of Sunshine, the science was butchered so badly that it actually affected my suspension of disbelief. Some of it goes back to long-overused tropes, like freezing almost immediately when you're exposed to the vacuum of space, or a big whooshing decompression that sucks everyone into space. My good friend and comrade in blog, the mighty Tristan Vick, remarked that he loved Sunshine and told me it was ‘the most scientifically accurate movie I've ever seen.’”

Mike then proceeds to list all the scientific flaws he could detect in the film. He lists approximately 14 major scientific blunders, informing us that “the entire premise is both impossible and implausible.”

What Mike is referring to, of course, is the premise of the sun dying. He goes on to explain that it wouldn't die in the way the film depicts. But is the premise really both impossible and implausible?

Well, I have two things to say on this. First, this is actually the McGuffin of the film. We’re not supposed to know exactly why the star is going out, only that it is, and so as the McGuffin of the story we needn't have a nailed down explanation. The mystery of not knowing why the sun is dying adds to the mystery and suspense of the film.

That said, I pointed out to Mike that the science consultant on the film, the one and only Dr. Brian Cox of the LHC at Cern and famous for his BBC series Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System, states in the special features that there is, in point of fact, a plausible (although perhaps not possible) scientific explanation for the sun’s faltering in the film. It’s something called a Q-ball.

Needless to say, the plot of Sunshine does not revolve around the sun dying in the typical sense of a star’s normal heat death and collapse, which seems to make Mike’s objections here irrelevant, since everything he argues for is a standard star’s death. Instead of a normal star death, our sun has been infected with what is called a "Q-ball" - a supersymmetric nucleus, left over from the big bang - that is disrupting the normal matter at the star’s core. This is a theoretical particle that scientists at CERN are currently trying to confirm, one which Brian Cox actually bets his colleagues in the special features interview that they *won’t actually find. At any rate, the film's bomb is meant to blast the Q-ball to its constituent parts which will then naturally decay, allowing the sun to return to normal.

So it appears the McGuffin which drives the plot in Sunshine actually is scientifically plausible, at least theoretically. Whether it’s possible or not actually depends on what the real scientists discover about Q-ball theories.

Another point Mike contends is the airlock scene, where the astronauts have to jettison out into the vaccum of space. As he explains it:

“In one scene, a few of the astronauts have to decompress an airlock and shoot 20 meters through space to another airlock — but only one of them has a suit. When the airlock is blown, they're sucked out in a big whoosh. This would not happen. If a spaceship decompressed, the force of decompression might suck out some loose objects, but you'd just sit there and die of vacuum exposure. This is especially true in an airlock, which doesn't contain nearly enough air to create much of any force.”

I was a bit fuzzy on this part of the film, so I popped in my Bluray and jumped to the scene in question (see the 50:50 mark in the film). After a violent malfunction and collision, the Icarus 2 informs them that the Icarus one that they have a hull breach and are venting atmosphere. At the same time, the decoupling has torn the Icarus one’s outer airlock to shreds. Mace even says, “The airlock is ripped in half, once we break that seal how are we going to repressurize?” (48:40 mark)

So the astronauts have only one attempt to launch themselves out into space and try and get through the open, still functioning, airlock on the Icarus two. As fate would have it, they have one suit, which they give to Capa, since he’s the brains of the operation and they need him to operate the payload. As such Harvey and Mace will be going it without any protective gear, while Searle will stay behind.

Over on his blog, I informed Mike that they were not shooting out of simply an enclosed airlock but that they had the entire pressure of the Icarus 1, or most of it--the part Searle hadn't closed off at any rate--launching them over to Icarus 2. 

I agree with Mike, however, that a single airlock wouldn’t contain enough atmospheric pressure to shoot them across the void, but its seems to me that nearly the entire pressure of the ship behind them might do the trick. At the very least it is more believable, from a scientific standpoint, even if it’s not perfect science.

As for the impromptu spacewalk itself, Mike says this is all wrong. He informs us that

“After Chris Evans' character is exposed to the vacuum of space and survives, he just goes on with the suspenseful progression of the film. In reality he'd need to spend time in a barometric chamber. He'd have joint pain and move slowly. And he'd have horrible burns from cosmic radiation.”

Although the barometric chamber thing is true, there cosmic radiation would only burn them horribly—for that short amount of time—if they were fully exposed (naked), and only if they were in direct contact with dangerous cosmic rays, in this case the cosmic rays coming from the sun. But remember, they are behind the Icarus 1 and 2’s heat shield, so many of the cosmic rays of radiation are being blocked by both ships massive heat shields. The freezing to death isn't entirely true either, as it would likely happen over a long period, as Mike correctly observes. But this is the stuff of science fiction movies—and Sunshine isn't the only one to play on this freezing to death in space trope.

But what really would happen if you were exposed to the vacuum of space? Well, I’ll let Hank at SciShow explain.

So there you have it.

Although the vacuum exposure scene in Sunshine isn't wholly accurate, it’s not completely inaccurate either. Mace wrapping himself up in the protective foil and insulation not to be exposed to radiation or cold is quite accurate. The fact that he only is exposed for 20 seconds and is in the vacuum for 45 means he could more than likely survive the ordeal, since it happened with the 1965 test subject at the Jonson Space Flight Center as mentioned by Hank in the above SciShow video . 

The popped blood vessels in Mace’s eyes and skin once he gets back on board Icarus two are also highly accurate of what would be the consequence of such an exposure (the fact that they are completely gone in the briefing room scene is just a continuity error where the scientific tracking failed in favor of carrying the drama—but since this is a dramatic film, that only makes sense. No movie is going to be 100% scientifically accurate 100% of the time).

In the comments section of Mike’s blog I mentioned to him that

“[Y]ou seem to neglect to look at all the science they get dead on. Which is a lot, actually. The reason I say it is one of the most scientifically accurate films is not for the amount it gets wrong, which is no more than any other big budget scifi, but for how much it actually gets right, which is way more than nearly every other scifi film out there.”

Mike replied by asking me:

“What does it get right? I mean seriously, aside from them wearing spacesuits in space and requiring a spacecraft to travel in space, I don't really see what they got right.”

Well, lots and lots, actually. Let me create a list.

1. The gold suits and the gold heat shields of the ships. Polished gold is the best heat shield possible given our current technology.

2. The joint, international venture of a massive space program like this would require astronauts from all the major countries which supported and funded this particular space program, just like our real life International Space Station. Which is why the director Danny Boyle wanted an multi-racial cast, to more accurately depict how real science organizations and real scientists would be working together at an international level to get such a large scale project off the ground (literally).

3. All the lighting in the Icarus is done as self-contained on the set. That is, all the lighting in the movie is real lighting from the Icarus set, not stage lighting.

4. The space sounds in the film are real space sounds received from space that were captured by a Midwestern university were incorporated into the sound design.

5. Aside from the freezing in space bit, the airlock scene is actually much more accurate than Mike gives it credit for.

6. The actors all went through basic astronaut boot camp including zero gravity flights on an acrobatic plane. Danny Boyle also took the cast onto a nuclear submarine to they would know how to move about crammed spaces and living quarters. This helped the actors make the zero gravity scenes and life aboard the Icarus 2 as realistic as scientifically possible.

7. The design of the Icarus 1 and 2 are done realistically using all of the technology available to us today.

8. The corpses of burn victims in the film were modeled on the Pompeii victims from the Mount Vesuvius eruption, to be as scientifically accurate as possible to those burnt alive by extremely high heat exposure.

9. The original storyboards depicted that the artificial gravity on the ship was due to the massiveness of the bomb, and when they were on Icarus 2 all the gravity pulled in the direction of the payload. This idea was scrapped however, because it would have made filming too difficult to maintain such scientific accuracy throughout the entire film. The fact that they included it up till shooting, however, shows that the filmmakers were aiming for better scientific accuracy than typically seen with other films of this genre (which seems to disprove Mike's feeling that they weren't trying with the whole artificial gravity thing).

10. Having a psychologist on board a long duration space flight is something NASA has considered necessary for long term space travel (it is also one of the required accademic requirements for astronauts).

“Behavioral, social, environmental, and industrial psychology can make valuable contributions to space missions. The challenge lies in applying the accumulated knowledge of these disciplines in new and more intense ways. The fundamental space program objectives include: (1) ensuring the physical safety of a space facility from human error or aberrant behavior, and (2) maximizing individual and group productivity. Psychology already has made a remarkable start in the direction of assuring more effective human performance in a variety of applied settings by precisely manipulating schedules of reinforcement and punishment (4).” (See full article here)

11. Captain Kaneda getting fried like an ant under a magnifying lense on a sunny day was fairly accurate. Especially considering he was getting fried by the sun from every which way, thanks to the heat shield’s reflection and amplification of the sun (sun death x2).

12. Capa’s initial sense of claustrophobia seems something even experienced deep sea divers experience from time to time, so his constant struggle with it seems not only accurate to the environmental conditions he had to endure, but to his human psychology.

13. The idea of the terrarium, using plants, for not only food but as an oxygen producer and natural filter for the long duration in space, whether on interstellar missions, space stations, or moon bases was highly accurate to proposals made by NASA.

I could go on listing the things Sunshine gets right. But I think I’ve made my point clear. Although it gets some science wrong, and which science fiction doesn’t(?), it gets a whole lot right.

Finally, I want to address one of Mike’s complains about Captain Pinbacker turned Mr. Crispy. Mike says:

“Nobody could survive for seven years with second- or third-degree burns all over their body without intensive medical care. The surviving captain is portrayed not only as having burns all over his body, but apparently having super strength, a horrifying ghostly deep voice, and cannot be seen clearly for reasons that are unexplained. The effect is without a doubt very cool and it works from a dramatic standpoint, but it's like Danny Boyl (sic) couldn't decide whether to make the film a believable science fiction movie or a supernatural horror flick. It casts shades of Event Horizon, but at least that movie had a clear explanation for why shit was getting scary.”

Here it seems that Mike may simply be chasing down another McGuffin. It’s not clear what Pinbacker has become. Like Searle, Pinbacker may have simply become obsessed with the sun. Clearly, he is crazy. When Capa stumbles upon him in the observation room, he turns around and asks Capa if he’s an angel. 

This spooky moment puts it into our minds that this religious nutter has completely lost it, and body mutilation isn’t anything new in the realm of radical religious sects. Burning his own body seems to be part of his new found faith, and as for how he could survive for seven years, well, the terrarium remained functional, and it seems Pinbacker has shut down all of the ship’s functions of Icarus one except for life support and the terrarium. So he obviously went vegan in space.

Is it that hard to fathom? I mean, he is mental, right? He believes God speaks to him, and he believes the Sun is God. He doesn't want them to destroy the Sun, because it’s his God. So, Pinbacker knows another mission will come, so he holds out for seven long years, waiting for that day when he will have to stop those pesky scientists from destroying his God.

Another interpretation, since the filmakers leave it up to the viewer (which I really like), is that Pinbacker's God actually is real, and Pinbacker has been granted eternal life. Sure, that may lessen the 'realism' quality of the film, but it's a perfectly valid interpretation. It would also explain how Pinbacker survived for so long in his condition, his weird fluctuation powers, and how his voice changed to something demonic.

I saw this entire part of the film as one giant metaphor for the battle between faith and science, and the fact that our scientists come across a religious zealot willing to sacrifice the fate of all humanity simply to see his religious beliefs through to the end—was chillingly prophetic. Pinbacker represents the threat of the Supernatural, literally, and then on the other side we have--science. And the fact that Capa, our lone protagonist, a lowly physicist, foils Pinbacker’s evil plan with the help of his fellow scientists, and overcomes the insanity and saves the sun and so too planet Earth—using science—gave me such a sense of inspiration and hope.

So ask me if I care how Pinbacker could have survived for those seven years, and I’ll tell you that you're missing the whole point of the film.


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