Arrival: The film's phony good intentions, and paradox of 'realistic' sci-fi
Entertainment Geekly: On shallow Deep Thoughts and godless Space-Gods.
NOTE: The following contains spoilers for Arrival, a movie many fine people love for some reason.
There have been many dumb movies made in our dumb century. Impressive, maybe, how Arrival waits over an hour before it actively starts insulting your intelligence. Helpful, too, that the movie stars good actors as smart people. Amy Adams is Louise Banks, a linguist; Jeremy Renner is Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist. They are friendly and they are competitive, like university professors at a faculty-only boozy brunch. At one point, Donnelly tells Banks, “You approach language like a mathematician.” In Arrival, a grayscale movie set in a frownverse of chilly professionals with furrowed brows, that counts as a love sonnet.
Banks and Donnelly try to talk to each other. Mostly, they try to talk to aliens. It’s in all the trailers: A big shapeless spacecraft, a geometric oxygenated alien-cave, hazily-visualized tentacular squidsects who sound like whales humming Hans Zimmer. This isn’t the kind of sci-fi movie with funny sci-fi nomenclature or florid sci-fi worldbuilding: The aliens are called “Heptapods.” The reason to see Arrival is to see Adams struggle towards communication with these seven-legged creatures. Her mission: To establish a common tongue with beings who have no tongue. (Or, maybe they have too many tongues; or, they’re giant tongues and their taste buds are vocal cords.)
Banks is afraid of the aliens, and delighted by them, intellectually stimulated and frustrated. It’s a fine performance by Adams, who has to carry a lot of weight. The aliens don’t look all that convincing. They’re so shrouded in distance fog, an understandable cost-cutting measure that nevertheless just feels like a cost-cutting measure. But Adams makes you believe in them — or anyhow, you believe she believes in them.
The Heptapods have a written language. Well, “written.” They spray ink-fog from a tentacle phallus to form cryptograms in mid-air. The best part of Arrival is the smartest and least trailer-y; Banks learns the alien written language, explains their circular sentence structure, muses about how it feels to think in a foreign language.
The plot problem is that language — spoken, written, whatever — is ambiguous. At one point, the squid-things declare: “There is no time.” Is that a warning — or a philosophy? Are these aliens a warrior race, or just hardcore fans of McConaughey from True Detective? (Their writing, you will notice, is flat circles.)
Arrival comes on strong like an intimate cerebral character piece. But it isn’t not Independence Day-ish. Confused and scared about the aliens’ intentions, the world flips out. The back half of Arrival is a ticking clock, maybe to Armageddon. There are familiar tropes: Clips from fake news networks, paper-thin military types going rogue for paper-thin reasons. There is “The Unspoken Military Might of China” as a co-lead.
The world descends into chaos, and Banks stares at a chalkboard. The fate of the world depends on Amy Adams thinking hard: So Arrival qualifies as “cerebral,” on the sliding scale of popular Hollywood sci-fi. 2016, we can’t forget, was the year of Batman v Superman, a movie where the fate of the world depends on Amy Adams grabbing a spear out of the water after she threw that spear into the water. Compared to kindergarten, fifth grade is college.
(ASIDE:You could could argue that Arrival doesn’t explicitly state Banks is “saving the world.” She is specifically preventing China from attacking the aliens; given the Heptapods’ zen attitude toward the space-time continuum, it’s possible they would have responded to any attack with peaceful acceptance. So maybe Banks is just saving the extraterrestrials. But the movie surely presents Banks’ final-act heroism as world-altering; when we see her talking to the Chinese General in the future, it’s clear that the world has adjusted peacewards from the chaos that dominates the movie. And it’s more or less explicitly stated that the Heptapods are saving humanity so humanity can save the Heptapods, which means by the transitive property Banks is actually saving two worlds. END OF ASIDE.)
There’s a phony core to Arrival, though, which emerges gradually and then suddenly. The film opens with the birth, life, and death of Banks’ daughter. The devastation of her loss haunts the film; mother-daughter scenes play through the movie. It seems like a character note, a clever bit of arc-setting: Banks, grieving the loss of her child, must now midwife our communication with an entirely new species. Perhaps you would say: Having cut herself off from humanity, she must now connect humanity to the stars. Or maybe not everything is plot-essential; maybe this is a movie daring enough to suggest that the characters have a life outside of the constraints of the movie.
But Arrival, turns out, is entirely a Plot Movie. Every character trait and hanging line of dialogue is hermetically sealed into the architecture of what amounts to a Big Twist. As Banks learns the aliens’ language, her consciousness comes unstuck in time. The daughter we’ve been seeing hasn’t even been born yet.
There’s an angle where this could be wild and interesting. But the film loses its ambition. Having established that Banks’ consciousness has broken through the usual flow of time-space, Arrival deploys her ascendance as a plot weapon. To stop China from launching an attack, Banks’ consciousness time-hops forward 18 months, where a helpful Chinese general tells her how she saved the world that one time. Actually, the way Banks saves the world is by calling the Chinese general and reminding him of his dead wife. Maybe you think that’s emotional; worth pointing out, maybe, that in Batman v Superman, the world gets saved because one guy says something that reminds another guy of his dead mom.
The dialogue goes downhill, too. In one of the flashforwards, Banks mentions that her daughter’s unseen father is a scientist. Actually, what Banks says in that scene is: “You want science? Call your father!” It’s one of the year’s worst lines, one of those load-bearing plot-hinge declaratives that only makes sense as a narrative breadcrumb. Hmmm, are there any scientists in this movie? Perhaps any handsome scientists played by the second-billed performer? Perhaps pretty much the only other human we see Amy Adams interact with? The Adams-Renner romance would maybe work, if the film had time for flirtation, if the performers were allowed to have chemistry. But Arrival isn’t really a “chemistry” kind of movie, nor really a “performer” kind of movie. Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg — two of our finest — spend the movie staring at screens, auditioning for the role of Bad Guy In a Bourne movie.
And the narrative trickery obscures a bigger problem. When you dig underneath all the pop-science whiteboarding and mystery-theater theorizing and globalist paranoia, Arrival as a text is pretty sentimental, simple, inoffensive, and bland. It comes on like thoughtful sci-fi, but the thoughts aren’t challenging, the science fuzzy, the fiction unconvincing. Communication is difficult, Arrival tells us, but not impossible. All ambiguities can become certainties. The aliens are here to help us; we can learn how to help each other. Here’s a film that perches the world on the edge of Armageddon, and concludes that, in order to save the world, we really need to be excellent to each other.
“Agreed!” you might say, and “So what?” I guess you could credit Arrival for good intentions, and maybe it’s churlish given the times we live in to deplore a movie for sentimentally believing that all the problems of the world can be solved with a healthy conversation. The Renner Romance and the Cute Daughter = happy feels and sad feels. Never mind that the romance is nonexistent, that the Cute Daughter has all the personality of the cute daughter from a smartphone commercial scored to Sigur Ros.
But it’s frustrating, how completely Arrival stacks its own deck. And how it mixes together its listless ideas. What had been a movie about the difficulty of communication becomes, suddenly, a film about accepting loss, or maybe the struggle from loneliness toward the possibility of loss. As the film ends, Banks ponders: Will she live out her life, knowing how it ends, knowing the unhappiness awaiting her? Can she appreciate every moment, the good and the bad? I dunno, what do you think? Arrival comes on like thoughtful science fiction, but it’s more like a religious fable, doing all the thinking and the feeling for you. “Are you Pro-Goodness or anti-Cute Daughter?” is the question of the movie. There is no third option.
“We never did learn why the Heptapods left,” says Banks, “Any more than we learned what brought them here, or why they acted the way they did.”
That is decidedly not a line in Arrival, a movie which climaxes with a Heptapod explaining — in the year’s most unintentionally funny subtitle — why they are here, and what they need humanity to do.
No, that line comes from “Story of Your Life,” the smart and unplotty short story by Ted Chiang. Arrival is based on that story — loosely, but maybe you think the changes were necessary. “Story of Your Life” doesn’t have any military-threat subplot, no race-against-the-Armageddon-clock final act. Actually, Chiang’s story doesn’t really do twists; it skips timelines, but at no point does anyone leap forward a couple years so Banks can talk to a Deus Ex Machina. And the movie, to be clear, literally has a ticking clock: A bomb set by the rogue soldiers, which leads to an offscreen shootout and an onscreen explosion. The story has no shootout, no explosion, no rogue soldiers. It does have a conversation about Fermat’s Principle, and at one point the narrator uses the phrase “a Borgesian fabulation.”
Maybe you think all the end-of-the-world stuff isn’t what Arrival is really about; that’s all just background, the macro B-plot to Banks’ micro A-plot. Someone on Twitter told me the aliens are just a metaphor, and the movie is about loneliness. But that argument has no merit, I think, since Arrival is in not a movie about a lonely woman achieving connection; it is a movie about a lonely woman achieving connection WHILE SHE IS SAVING THE WORLD. Sometimes, the medium is the message.
Arrival belongs to a subgenre of science fiction cinema that doesn’t really have a proper name. You know it when you see it. Some heads prefer the term “Hard Science Fiction,” but that sounds too egotistical and too judgmental. It commingles seriousness with toughness, implying that anything else is somehow too soft.
In the past, I’ve used the phrase “Realistic Science Fiction,” but that’s not quite right either; if the story was realistic, then by definition it couldn’t be science fiction. (Perhaps “Realishtic”?) “Realism” as an aesthetic term is unhelpful now, vague enough that it can apply to anything. Actually, “realism” is now most often used as a paradoxical modifier, appended to things that are base-level unrealistic. (No director of a superhero film will ever say: “I wanted this movie to feel as unrealistic as possible.”)
By way of contrast to, like, Transformers 3, you could say that Arrival represents Deep-Thought Science Fiction. But I’m not sure Arrival actually has any deep thoughts. Perhaps you’ve never imagined the possibility of human consciousness living in multiple time periods; you should read Slaughterhouse-Five, watch the middle seasons of Lost, just get more in tune with your universe, man.
The simplest way of framing the subgenre is Science Fiction Without Rayguns: A cinema of far-out concepts and human concerns, deploring cheap thrills or phaser-laser setpieces. There are no swashbucklers, no spacefights, no alien princesses, no aliens human-looking enough to be sexy. (You can have fun getting pedantic: Alien counts, probably, but not Aliens; Deep Impact definitely counts, but not Armageddon.) In these films, basic rules of science are obeyed: It takes forever to get anywhere, and in space no one can hear anything.
If that sounds like fun: Congratulations, you’re the moviegoer Hollywood can’t afford to believe in. Making Science Fiction Without Rayguns generally demands a big budget and generally promises no easy thrills. People barely want to see science fiction movies as it is. Fantasy has always been more popular at the box office — especially depending on which bucket you toss Star Wars into. (It has spaceships, but also swordfights; it has rayguns, but also wizards.)
Some films in this genre get around the “budget” thing with a lo-fi aesthetic. The brilliant time travel potboiler Primer was shot for lunch money in houses and public spaces. The clever Ex Machina won an Oscar for its digital effects, but it’s cheaper to build a robot woman when she spends the movie talking in one room. But spaceships are a problem you can’t fake with clever lighting. Arrival cost a reported $47 million and seems to have 17 production companies, and the film still has to deal with people saying things like “the aliens don’t look all that convincing.”
2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t cheap — somewhere around $11 or $12 million in 1968, much more expensive than Arrival now — and in some ways it belongs in a class by itself, a weird head-trip big-budget spectacle with no real protagonists. Yet 2001 is generally accepted as the pinnacle of the real-ish science fiction genre.
You either think 2001 is a perfect movie or you think it’s totally boring. I lean the former, and I cried when I saw it last year on the big screen for the first time. But I understand the latter perspective, too. 2001 features a bare minimum of exposition, most of it inscrutable. The actors barely form facial expressions. There’s a five-minute scene where a guy runs and runs and runs. It’s never made explicitly clear why anything is happening, ever.
Which, to be clear: It’s all incredible, incredible, incredible. It’s hard to imagine anyone making 2001 today, because it’s hard to imagine how anyone ever made 2001. The film introduces a charming talking computer and sends that computer on a quietly murderous rampage. It concludes with the sole survivor — a character you barely know, with arguably no real character traits beyond “human-ness” — aiming his ship straight into a wormhole. And although all Kubrick’s films have a chilly reputation, it’s not hard to argue that 2001 is one of the most optimistic movies ever made: If you think humanity will last long enough to evolve into a higher state of being, you probably don’t watch the news anymore.
In the thick of the first run of Star Trek, nine years before Star Wars, 2001 inaugurated a new kind of science fiction cinema. Some people prefer the artier Solaris or the funkier Cool Silent Running, and you can just as easily draw a line from 2001 to Steven Spielberg’s populist Close Encounters of the Third Kind, maybe the single most beloved movie ever made about a man ditching his family to pursue his dreams.
Arrival certainly has a lot in common with Close Encounters. Spielberg’s film ends with scientists at a base camp trying to communicate with extraterrestrials in a floating ship. That’s where Arrival begins, middles, and ends, what with time being such a flat circle.
But actually, Arrival more closely resembles Contact, a film about Jodie Foster wearing headphones and listening to those headphones and then listening really hard to those headphones.
Contact was a sensation in 1997 when it was just a trailer — it’s one of the best previews of the ’90s — and it’s been pretty well forgotten these past two decades. Easy to understand why: Sold as a thrilling cosmic tale of first contact with an alien species, it’s arguably best understood as a portrait of the bureaucratic response to the possibility of first contact with aliens. Foster plays Dr. Ellie Arroway, and she spends the first part of the movie fighting, tooth and nail, for funding. Then, she fights sketchy government types (including James Woods, at Peak Sketchy Government Type Nixon). And then she has to audition for the chance to travel through space — to fulfill her whole life’s work! — in front of a UN-ish panel, televised around the world.
At this point, Arroway has established herself: As a scientist, as a devoted hard worker, as someone who is committed her whole life to the possibility of humanity’s cosmic endeavor. And this scientist is asked, in full view of the world, “Do you believe in God?” (The man asking her is a Christian pop-philosopher who she slept with years ago, played by Matthew McConaughey, but that’s not important.)
Arroway tells the truth. “As a scientist, I rely on empirical evidence,” she explains. “I don’t believe there is data either way.” The whole panel visibly sags. Doesn’t 95 percent of the human race believe in a Supreme Being? Shouldn’t any representative of that race believe that, too? Foster refuses to pander.
Then Tom Skerritt takes the stand, for his own audition. He’s one of Foster’s rivals, a government-lifer company man who refused to fund Foster’s work when it seemed pointless, and is now grabbing all her credit now that her work has paid off. His character is named David Drumlin, and I think he’s one of the great underrated antagonists of the ’90s. Drumlin talks about “all that God has blessed us with,” and he worries about what will happen if “we chose to send a representative who did not put our most cherished beliefs first.”
The panel selects Drumlin. McConaughey’s avatar-of-Christianity, full of despondent self-righteousness, tries to convince Arroway that, darn it, he just had to vote with his conscience. “I just couldn’t, in good conscience,” he tells her, “vote for a person who doesn’t believe in God.”
Arroway is disgusted — maybe partially with the idea of a man of faith passing judgment on a woman of science, but mostly offended that the panel responded so well to an obvious con. “I told the truth up there,” says Arroway. “Drumlin told you exactly what you wanted to hear.”
A woman tells the world hard truths, and is punished for her honesty. A man tells the world what they want to hear, and is rewarded for his opportunism. Like the best Science Fiction Without Rayguns, Contact has far outlived its original context. Like Arrival, it does get fuzzier as it goes along. Arroway achieves her own dead-relative transcendence. You could argue, in broad strokes, that Contact‘s message is Arrival‘s message: Connection Is Important, or Reach Beyond Thyself. (Quoth the alien: “The only thing we found that makes the emptiness bearable [is] each other.”)
But Contact earns that optimism. Scientific endeavor, the movie argues, is difficult: endless research, embarrassing ass-out funding pleas, the very good possibility that all your work will be taken away from you by some dude who doesn’t believe in science and doesn’t know “science” isn’t something you believe in. “Small moves,” the alien tells Jodie Foster. Contact is an argument against grand gestures. It’s a passionate ode to, of all things, incrementalism.
Foster came back to science fiction in 2013’s Elysium, a movie that boldly argues that there are rich people and there are poor people, and that’s uncool, man. Having established a tone of bare social realism, the film immediately becomes an eerie fable of Privilege Bestowed: Matt Damon plays a white messiah to a working-class trashworld seemingly populated exclusively by Hispanics. The film solves wealth disparity using advanced medical technology. It’s the least thoughtful sort of science fiction: Having addressed a real problem, Elysium invents an impossible solution.
The film was directed by Neill Blomkamp, who has since admitted that the story wasn’t quite all there. Blomkamp had a reputation as a sci-fi thinker after District 9, but he’s never been as pretentious as his partisans. He likes action scenes, and he likes space guns. Elysium is, in that sense, a fairly standard contemporary blockbuster action film. It suffers from our modern story gravity: The world is at stake.
That’s true of Arrival, too, and I don’t think it should be overlooked. I know some people view Arrival as a deeply personal story — but that personal story is unquestionably political, and every move Adams makes is sanctified with moral goodness.
In 2001, the fate of the world wasn’t at stake. Actually, in that sense, contemporary semi-serious sci-fi is much closer in spirit to the film 2010, an oddly endearing bad sequel which tries hard to crush everything interesting about 2001 with retroactive coherence. 2010 explains, in numbing detail, why HAL went crazy — it wasn’t his fault, and the once-mad computer nobly sacrifices itself to save humanity. Literally, all humanity: By the end of 2010, the U.S. and the USSR are at a state of high tension, and the threat of nuclear war looms large. The monoliths, previously an unknowable outside force, reveal themselves as helpful parental figures. They transform Jupiter into a star, which makes the moon Europa into a new vibrant planet. Back home on Earth, the Americans and the Soviets see two suns in the sky – and declare general peace.
Arthur C. Clarke wrote the book 2010 in 1982. The book is more austere, clinical, less dramatic, and better. It ends with a message from the monoliths, via HAL, to humanity:
ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA.
ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE.
It’s in the film of 2010 that the big world-saving stakes come to the forefront. And the film updates that final message, too:
ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA.
ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE.
USE THEM TOGETHER.
USE THEM IN PEACE.
A mysterious warning becomes a blessing, a preaching. There is science fiction that imagines the freaky magnificence of the unknown, and there is science fiction that imagines the unknown is there to guide us helpfully along, replacing God with aliens who might as well be God.
You might argue that that’s what 2001 is about, in the end, but I don’t think you can say that 2001‘s view of its mystery Monolith aliens is all-the-way positive; certainly, there’s no scene where a Monolith explains, in subtitle, that they are saving humanity because they need humanity’s help in 3000 years. (A nihilist would argue that 2001 is about how Earth is a laboratory and we’re the lab rats.) Maybe you think 2010 is clearer in its intentions than 2001 — in which case, maybe those good intentions are just vastly less interesting. Maybe 2010 makes you feel better than 2001 because everyone in 2010 is nice. (Even HAL is nice in 2010).
In 2014, Christopher Nolan delivered Interstellar, a film which gilds wormhole physics with daddy-daughter emotionality. It’s a film I gather some people love — currently #32 on the IMDB top 250, whatever that means anymore. And it’s unquestionably a nice film. It declares that the whole fourth dimensional architecture of time and space is made out of love. It sends a man into a wormhole, where the universe sends him back to his daughter. Interstellar even has its own variation of Heptapods: Extra-dimensional beings, evolved from humanity, who exist outside of time, so they can save humanity and provide third-act catharsis.
My favorite character in Interstellar is the one nominal bad guy. Matt Damon plays “Dr. Mann,” probably an homage: Nolan loves Michael Mann, as all good people do. The characters find Mann, all alone in his corner of the universe, a space-tossed Crusoe with a touch of space madness. While everyone else in the film wants to save Earth, Dr. Mann thinks it’s high time to start a new world. He tries to kill Matthew McConaughey, but Mann’s true villainy is philosophical. In a film that lands on the idea that the universe runs on love, the voice of cruel logic (and actual, coherent science) can only sound demonic. McConaughey’s not a scientist, but darn it, he wants to save his daughter: That’s a nice sentiment, and Interstellar builds its whole universe so that he can be right. (Probably inadvertently, McConaughey in Interstellar proves McConaughey in Contact right; there is a Higher Power out there, and it is Pro-Goodness, and Pro-Cute Daughter.)
Dr. Mann could’ve been one of the heroes in When Worlds Collide, a 1951 movie about the global fear that erupts when a rogue planet approaches Earth on a collision course. When Worlds Collide doesn’t read “serious” the way Interstellar or Arrival both do — it’s B-movie pulp from the atomic era — but its ending is impressively blunt, and serene in its weird acceptance of global catastrophe. There is no Space-God there to save anyone. Earth ends; but the movie claims that doesn’t have to be the end. When Worlds Collide sends a few lucky survivors to a very Biblical vision of a new Eden, but it doesn’t ignore the other Biblical visions, the flood that ends the world once, and the fire next time.
For all their apocalyptic scene-setting and mild paranoia about political figures, Interstellar and Arrival are comforting films. They declare that the great unknown can become the known; that, in fact, the unknown knows us, and loves us. They replace the spiritual higher power with a pop-science Higher Power, extraterrestrials and extradimensionals. (The scientists in the movie are their apostles; Anne Hathaway’s character in Interstellar makes a lot more sense if you put a priest’s collar around her neck.)
They have a lot in common with The Martian, starring Damon as a man who becomes his best self when he’s left alone in the cosmos. the Bizarro-world inversion of Dr. Mann. I’m hesitant to even mention The Martian in an essay about science fiction; the film is famously accurate about everything besides the dust storm at the beginning. Actually, the most fantastical part of The Martian is the stuff back on Earth, where NASA has bottomless funding and China shares technology with any government that needs it. (Apparently, The Martian is set a couple decades in the future, making the film’s disco obsession even less convincing.)
It’s an endearing vision, no doubt. We’d like to imagine a NASA free of bureaucratic oversight, where everyone’s a Jodie Foster and no one’s a Tom Skerritt. Perhaps you think we need comfort right now, more than ever. Perhaps the possibility of the dark mystery of the universe is too much to take, when Earth itself feels dark and mysterious. Arrival, like 2010 before it, wants to make you believe that humanity can be saved. These movies speak to us the way their Space-Gods speak to the characters onscreen: They advise us, in blunt terms, to be nice. And we should be nicer to each other. I didn’t need a movie to tell me that; and I don’t think sincerity equals profundity. If you think good intentions make a movie great, go watch Crash.
Contact believes in humanity, too: In science, in hard work, in the great cosmic experiment of generations working toward something greater than ourselves. It’s not a perfect movie, but it still feels more alive to the problems of our moment than any of our recent real-ish science fiction films.
But if you want a heavy dose of science fiction that hits your heart and your mind — if you thought Arrival was nice, but maybe you want something thoughtful enough to suggest that Space-God won’t always be there to save us — then this month, in the shadow a dark universe, the movie I’d recommend is Sunshine.
Scripted by Ex Machina‘s Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle, Sunshine is the go-to example of Why Studios Don’t Make Science Fiction Without Rayguns. A little ways in the future, Earth is in trouble. The sun is dying. On a mission to bring our shining star back to life, a crew of nuclear astronauts are flying straight to the center of our solar system, carrying a nuclear payload the size of Manhattan. Nobody onboard talks says as much, but everyone knows that they’re probably on a suicide mission. Every day, they’re one step closer to saving the world; every day, one step closer to dying.
The film cost $40 million, took years to make, required everyone involved (including Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans pre-Captain America, and Rose Byrne pre-everything) to believe passionately that they had to work hard on an unsettling space movie with zero mass appeal about a spaceship moving realistically slowly toward total doom. The film came out, made less than $4 million in America, was generally vilified by scientists and totally ignored by critics. (It’s a cruddy business, sometimes, making movies.)
“It lost track of itself,” is how Garland recently described Sunshine. In the same interview, Garland explains that the film’s production ran on two impulses: As a screenwriter, he viewed it as being more reflective and Ex Machina-ish, where Boyle as a stylist “has a terrific instinct toward viscerality and compulsion,” which is maybe a roundabout way of saying that Boyle really thought Sunshine needed more action scenes.
That creative battle is all onscreen. Sunshine is initially a movie about bummed out people from a ruined Earth looking into space and pondering the cosmos. Then there’s a big action scene set to John Murphy’s rousing score. Then the crew, grieving, ponders some more. At times, Sunshine almost feels like the Platonic Ideal of a sci-fi trip film, a stoner space movie about people in space acting stoned. (One of the crew members, a psychologist, keeps on staring at the sun, in druggy ecstasy.)
Hard decisions have to be made. The crew turns against itself, kind of, and people turn against themselves, for reasons that are maybe justified. Then the movie takes an infamous left turn: An astronaut (played by Mark Strong looking like a fleshpile from Hellraiser) from a previous mission somehow gets onboard, and starts killing people. What had been a capital-m Meditation On The Cosmos becomes a slasher film. It’s possible that Sunshine needed the final act turn to get made — that, unable to find financing for a film about smart people feeling sad on a spaceship, someone had the brilliant idea of wedging in a serial killer.
The end result is a mess, but even its least convincing plot turn has some resonant truth. The maniac astronaut has found religion, see. Unable to deal with the brutal unknown extremes of the inner cosmos, he has fled inward, and excavated something like fundamentalism. “All our science, all our hopes, our dreams, are foolish!” he says, and “When he chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God!” He’s a suicide bomber on a death-cult mission, but I’m not so sure his instinct is different from Amy Adams in Arrival, or Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar. Those films pretend to look outward, but they really look inward; they want to be about humanity, but they’re actually about the people brave enough (and Space-Gods powerful enough) to save humanity.
By comparison, the ultimate good guy in Sunshine is Cillian Murphy, playing a physicist who seems a little shy, a little blunt. He’s inhuman, but only in the sincere manner of doctors and scientists, better with molecules than people, better with string theory than the ties that bind us together. He’s named “Robert Capa,” an homage to the war photographer famous for his pictures from Omaha Beach. The reference is a code, I think; it’s as if Sunshine is saying that witnessing can be heroic, that seeing the universe at its worst can actually be a gateway to a higher state of being. None of the actions taken by Murphy’s character are obviously good-guy heroic. He’s on the ship so he can detonate a nuclear bomb and restart the sun: The veritable Original Sin of modern physics, recontextualized as an act of cosmic resurrection.
Murphy claims that working on the movie made him an atheist. And popular conception often ties atheism into nihilism, because most people think it’s a bummer to imagine that we’re alone in the universe. More heartwarming, no doubt, to imagine that aliens will arrive, teach us their language, bring peace to the world, bring serenity to the human heart. That’s what happens in Arrival, and pardon me for thinking that worthwhile sentiment is its own kind of cynicism: Belief that things have gotten so bad that we need a higher power to save us, all of it buoyed by a portrayal of global geopolitics so simplistic that all the problems of our superpowered world can be fixed with a phone call.
Sunshine offers another possibility, tough, bleak, and truly hopeful. Maybe the sun won’t shine again for us. But we can make sure it shines for someone else.