Sunshine, British director Danny Boyle’s latest collaboration with writer Alex Garland, starts with an ultraslick pitch: an international space crew heads to the dying sun to jump-start the star with a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan. What follows is a meditation on social duty, self-control, kamikaze/suicide-bomber psychology, and cabin fever; plus, this still being Boyle and not Tarkovsky, some good old ultraviolence rears its bloody head in the last reel. We’ve asked the director about the logic behind some of Sunshine’s more devious inventions.
Was there a bit of the contrarian spirit at the project's inception – you know, a film about the global freeze when all of the world's neuroses are focused on the exact opposite?
I know! That was the thing we decided three years ago. We understood then that the world was going to be focused on climate change, but we didn't want to be topical in that way. It was a way to emphasize how vulnerable we are without being too literal about it.
In Sunshine, like in 28 Days Later, the characters constantly pit "civilized" ethics and beliefs against a kind of survivor math: who's expendable and who's not. There always seem to be five people in a lifeboat fit for three, if you know what I mean. Is that a pet theme of yours?
Someone pointed out to me that my films are always about a bunch of people imploding, or surviving. It's the ultimate group dynamic. I love the drama to be extreme, to push the characters to extreme places – I'm not interested in a nuanced drama of social conventions. Even the first film I did, Shallow Grave – it has that "Let's vote" scene. Let's vote on whether to kill the guy! Basically, it's about putting to the test the idea of this liberal democrat that we all claim to be. All great space movies that I love, like Alien, are built on that dynamic.
Your villain – I need to be vague here for the audience's sake – is never once shown in focus.
I wanted him to be spectral, really. Whether he's there or not is irrelevant. He is there in the characters' minds, as a challenge to their sanity. But what he represents is a kind of fundamentalism, the most extreme opposite to the purity of science – "We must bow down before God's will."
Everyone in the film, including Cillian Murphy, speaks a kind of Americanized English. Is his character an American, or is this how you think the British people will talk in 2050?
[Laughs.] They're meant to be effectively Americans. It's an American-Asian crew. But you're right, maybe this is the English of the future. I'm about to do a film in Mumbai, and the English is weird there – it's a mix of Hindu and English, and millions of people speak it. Can you imagine? That's gonna affect language everywhere!
Sunshine's ending is uncharacteristically hopeful. Does this mean that, like with 28 Days Later, you have an extra-depressing "director's cut" ending stashed away?
There's something modest about our ending, I think. In a movie like this, you're meant to have a lot of flag-waving and cheering and big crowds, and we don't have that. It's optimistic, though, because I believe science can improve our lives. We will fuck up along the route, but we will make it better. It's a wonderful thing we're doing, trying to improve this world. Alex Garland, the writer, and I are committed scientists, in a way. Neither of us is a scientist, but we're committed to the task. And when I talked to our science advisers, I was amazed how massively these people think. Take the nuclear bomb. The most arrogant, appalling, wonderful thing that science can do. They think things like that. They do dream of creating stars.
So you haven't shot any footage of, say, the Earth getting pulverized – you know, just for the DVD?
[Laughs.] No, no, I swear.
Related: David Edelstein's Review of Sunshine [NYM]