The Last Man: Herod and Jesus in “Sunshine”

When viewed as an allegory of biblical history, the controversial third act of Danny Boyle’s gripping sci-fi adventure is transformed from an illogical divergence into a blinding revelation.

The following analysis contains spoilers for the movie “Sunshine.”

The Creation Week is the elementary typethat orders everything God has said and everything He has made. The best literature, art, music, and cinema resonatewith us, even if we cannot precisely articulate why, because they are in some way an exposition of this fundamental formula. Just as the deep proclaimsunto the deep (Psalm 42:7; Jonah 2:3), in the works of creative masters we recognize an echo of something that is in ourselves.

This continual artistic and cultural word-and-response is also a process of succession, just as day unto day pours outspeech, and night unto night breathes outknowledge (Psalm 19:2). Since Man is a work of God, the best works of men declare the glory of God, and sometimes this occurs in spite of the intent of their creators. In one sense, every knee already bows, every tongue already confesses.

God makes even the silent witness of a graven image a testimony in His court, its exposure of Man serving as part of the chorus in an unhalting increase of light.

The day that is passing away proclaims the lesson which it had to convey from the movements of the heavens, about God; and thus the knowledge of God is accumulating as the time moves on. Each day has its own lesson in regard to the wisdom, the power, and the goodness of God, and that lesson is conveyed from one day to another. There is a perpetual testimony thus given to the wisdom and power of the Great Creator.1

Bible history begins with a succession of literal days, each with its own evening and morning. It then moves into metaphorical days, longer cycles of darkness and light which describe a process of harvest-by-covenant, a growth from childhood to maturity in individuals, families, tribes, nations, and empires. These diverse uses of the word “day” must not be conflated, but they are indeed related. The weekly day of the Lord (Revelation 1:10) led to an unveiling of the “days of vengeance” (Luke 21:22), the imminent week of seven years (AD64-70) which comprised a Day of God against Israel according to the flesh (Revelation 16:14).

Danny Boyle’s 2007 movie Sunshineis about holding back the last day, the prevention of a possible catastrophe for all mankind. Ostensibly it is about the death of God, yet it betrays its own purpose by unintentionally retelling the core narrative of the New Testament.

Restarting the Sun

Dark Matter is destabilizing the sun. It is 2057, and all life is threatened as the earth slowly plunges into an ice age.

OUR SUN IS DYING. MANKIND FACES EXTINCTION. SEVEN YEARS AGO THE  ICARUS PROJECT SENT A MISSION TO RESTART THE SUN BUT THAT MISSION WAS LOST BEFORE IT REACHED THE STAR. SIXTEEN MONTHS AGO, I, ROBERT CAPA, AND A CREW OF SEVEN LEFT EARTH FROZEN IN A SOLAR WINTER. OUR PAYLOAD: A STELLAR BOMB WITH A MASS EQUIVALENT TO MANHATTAN ISLAND. OUR PURPOSE: TO CREATE A STAR WITHIN A STAR. EIGHT ASTRONAUTS STRAPPED TO THE BACK OF A BOMB. MY BOMB. WELCOME TO THE ICARUS II.

Construction of the second bomb has depleted all suitable resources, so this mission is mankind’s final chance.

As the Icarus IIapproaches the sun, the ship enters the “dead zone” — a field of solar noise that interferes with radio communications to Earth — seven days earlier than expected. However, amplified by the iron in the mass of the planet Mercury, the faint distress beacon of theIcarus Iis detected. The crew now faces a dilemma.

Capa, the physicist whose job it is to oversee the final calculations for the deployment and detonation of the stellar payload, is the one tasked with deciding whether to visit the ship in case there are survivors. This carries the risk of putting their mission in jeopardy, but also the possibility of using a second bomb if the first fails.

Without enough data to make an informed decision, Capa tells Captain Kaneda that the best he can do is “flip a coin.” Two last hopes are better than one.

A terrible crisis results from a human error during the deviation, and Capa is blamed for making the wrong call. The Icarusmission was planned (and named) as a “there and back again,” but as things unravel it becomes clear that Capa, as guardian of the bomb, is the only member of the expendable crew who is not immediately expendable.

We Are Dust

After the rendezvous, Capa’s hope that the extra payload might be useful is dashed when the ship’s computer is found to have been irreparably sabotaged.

The interior of the Icarus Iis filled with dust, possibly from the incineration of the crew through a deliberate overexposure to sunlight in its full strength. Their charred forms are discovered huddled together in the solar observation room but it is unclear whether this was a mass suicide or a mass murder.

Mace:Human skin.

Harvey:What?

Mace:Eighty percent of dust is human skin.

The captain’s final log is viewed, previously unseen since it was transmitted from within the dead zone.

Pinbacker:I am Pinbacker, Commander of the Icarus I. We have abandoned our mission. Our star is dying. All our science, all our hopes, our… our dreams, are foolish! In the face of this, we are dust, nothing more. And to this dust, we will return. When he chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God.

The airlock between the spacecraft is ruptured, and Capa discovers that Pinbacker, captain of the original mission, himself scorched and misshapen, is now hiding some- where on the Icarus II. He intends to slay its remaining crew just as he had massacred his own.

Rather than lurking in the shadows, he is “dwelling  in unapproachable light” in the solar observation room (1 Timothy 6:16), yet also crouching like sin at the door (Genesis 4:7). Obviously delusional, he makes a mystical speech to Capa before lunging at him with a knife:

Pinbacker:Are you an angel? Has the time come? I’ve been waiting so long.

Capa:Who are you?

Pinbacker:Who am I? … At the end of time, a moment will come when just one man remains. And the moment will pass. The man will be gone. There will be nothing to show that we were ever here but stardust. The last man, alone with God. Am I that man?

Twisted in mind and body, Pinbacker wounds Capa, sabotages the second ship’s computer, and then attempts to prevent the activation of the payload.

Pinbacker:For seven years, I spoke with God. He told me to take us all to heaven.

After surviving the second of two harrowing leaps across open space, Capa successfully completes the mission and the audience gets its happy ending. But just beneath the sci-fi veneer sits an ancient story, one that strangely goes almost totally unnoticed by Bible scholars today.

The Fundamentalist

When, in its final, brutal act, this cerebral sci-fi film veers into stalk-and-slash movie territory and then indulges in spiritual surrealism, the jolting switches in genre betray Hollywood’s unspoken code concerning audience expectations. John Truby writes:

The single most important decision you make when developing your premise is: what genre should I use? Genre is a particular type of story, like detective, comedy, thriller or action. The reason genre is so important is that the entire entertainment business is based on it.

That sounds like a pretty extreme statement until you look at how Hollywood has set itself apart from the rest of the world. The rest of the world has always emphasized the original artistic vision in their filmmaking. Which is great for art, but bad for commerce, because for each film, the audience has to re-invent the wheel. They have to guess whether they want to enter the theater. And they have to work hard to figure out the unique story patterns that make that film work.

Hollywood realized a long time ago that it is not in the business of selling original artistic vision (though it sometimes happens anyway). It is in the business of buying and selling story forms. Genres tell the audience up front what to expect from the product they are buying. If they like a particular kind of story, chances are they will like this particular film, especially if the writer and director give the expectations a little twist.2

The fact that every problem which plagues the Icarusmissions is due in some way to human failings rather than unforeseen natural causes or even interference from alien beings suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, reveals the story to be a character study with spiritual overtones.

Adapted from a screenplay by novelist (The Beach, The Tesseract, The Coma)and screenwriter (28 Days Later, Dredd, Ex Machina)Alex Garland, the original focus was the obligation of the human race to care for the planet which is currently its only possible home. The religious allusions, solar symbolism, and spiritual surrealism seem to have come mostly, but not entirely, from (Irish Catholic) director Danny Boyle.3

Human notions of the physical universe and its spiritual creator are closely entwined when considering the life and death of a star. For within our own vocabulary the “heavens” can be celestial as well as scientific…

Garland and Boyle are nothing if not ambitious. They want us to consider the Big Questions about the importance or inconsequence of mankind as well as the argument of science versus fundamentalism. It is said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. But how about in space? If you were to look into the center of the sun, would you see the face of God?

The first two thirds of Sunshineplay on these issues in an intelligent and actually quite subtle fashion. There are no deep monologues about the vastness of the universe or the crutch of spiritual belief, thank God. Everything is conveyed through action and reaction and the very powerful images that Boyle and his team conjure up to create the power of the sun’s light. Something they are clearly trying to suggest is more than a literal “illumination”. Yet, this is actually the film’s singular flaw. Boyle and Garland do not seem to be on the same page philosophically and the film cannot contain their oddly opposing views. Garland is trying to tell a story about man’s inability to comprehend the universe without making himself the center of it, while Boyle is photographing a movie about man’s spiritual connection to the divine. Boyle does not see the divine as being within man himself but rather something outward, to be literally reached for and just barely out of grasp.

In fact, Boyle is quite literal altogether. He layers images onto the subtle script which are both obvious and yet perplexing in the extreme. Images of sex and reproduction are everywhere and yet there is no actual sex on-screen. The Icarus IIlooks like a sperm cell as it approaches the center of an egg-like sun which it needs to penetrate in order to preserve life itself. In one scene, several crew members must be shot out of the wrecked Icarus Iback to their own ship like a journey through the birth canal. These are presented but have little to do with the film’s more central themes and are certainly abandoned by the last third where the whole film falls apart completely.4

According to Boyle, who describes himself as a “spiritual atheist,” Garland’s story portrays Pinbacker as a religious fundamentalist. When Capa locates the saboteur in the solar observation room, back from the dead but barely recognizable, he reaches out his hand and touches him. Pinbacker flinches.

Capa:My God. My God. Captain Pinbacker.

Pinbacker:Not your God. Mine!

It is then that Pinbacker, presented as a shadow Christ, cuts Capa across the chest. This dialogue is a deliberate inversion of John 20:17:

Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

In this battle between science and religion, the implication is that the captain’s madness corresponds not only to religious hypocrites but also to modern Christianity itself. It is Western culture with its Christian foundations that is perceived to be the destroyer of the Earth. In contrast, the cool, calm, and collected physicist is the true savior of the world. Like Mace, the unstintingly pragmatic engineer, Capa is committed to undiluted rationality. He needs no hope outside of or beyond his life’s mission. He is nothing more than stardust. Oblivion is his destiny.

As the movie goes on, the crew of the Icarus IIbecomes increasingly convinced that they’re going to die out there, millions of miles from home. More than in any science fiction movie I’ve seen — maybe any movie — Sunshine’scharacters face this knowledge with a kind of fatalistic grace. They don’t pretend to be anything other than doomed, but they carry on anyway.5

This subtext is flawed because it is the secularWest that is a culture without hope. If allreligions are “true” in a merely subjectivesense, each with its unique claim upon the future, then none of them is objectivelytrue, and there is no future. The resulting loss of hope and subsequent resort to hedonism is cutting the West out of history, spiritually (Garden), demographically (Land), and economically (World). Having rewritten the story of mankind’s origins as a blind process whose primary mechanism is death, modern Man is forced to come to terms with the proposition that death is not only natural but good.

For Garland and Boyle, good is evil and evil is good. However, for those with open eyes, Sunshineunwittingly presents us with the opposite of what it creators intended. In truth, it is Pinbacker who represents the West and its cultural death wish. In a subversive way, it is Capa whose mission more closely resembles Christianity. He faces his potential doom with the face of an angel and the determination of a martyr. “The last man” brings life, not death.

These Are Two Covenants

Even more interesting than the fact that Sunshineinadvertently retells the story of the capstone of biblical history is that it does so more effectively than Christian academia. This is due mostly to the misinterpretation of the book of Revelation. First century Christians were not being warned about an Antichrist who would arrive on the scene after two millennia. The actual Antichrist was the Herodian dynasty which rejected the kingdom of Christ at every step and clung onto power through infanticide, incarceration, false doctrine, and murder.

If we take the Icarus Iand Icarus IIas the Old and New Covenants respectively, Pinbacker represents “the flesh,” offering itself upon the altar once again in a perversion of atonement that assumes the practices of the priests of Baal. The king has killed the prophets of God, and like Pinbacker’s crew suspended before the sun, they await their day of vengeance at the base of the fiery altar.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on  those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Revelation 6:9-11)

The Herods attempted to prevent “the last days” of Israel by stopping time, trapping Yahweh in their Temple, possessing Him as an artifact, preserving Him like an insect in amber. They themselves would be the fulfillment of all the promises of the prophets. Likewise, the Icarus Iis Pinbacker’s golden sarcophagus, a claim to deity that masks a cargo of Adamic bones and dust.

As with Pinbacker, the arrival of a “new” covenant was a threat to their assumed dynasty. In order for the Jewish rulers to remain “alone” with their god, they needed to slaughter a new contingent of martyrs. In Sunshine,Pinbacker sets about murdering the crew of the Icarus II.

They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. (John 16:2)

Suddenly, the apparent switches in genre make perfect sense. Capa is a “Peter” who has led Jesus’ sheep to the slaughter in order to bring about a new dawn. It could not come until after they were offered. The New Testament itself is a slasher film with a surreal, spiritual ending that is grossly misunderstood. The conflict between Capa and Pinbacker is a clash over the future of mankind, and it culminates in a great Day of Atonement. It is through this understanding of the plot that the Christian imagery at the climax of the film — both intentional and unintentional — seals the film’s testimony to the glory of God.

The most startling feature of the Icarusships is a titanic golden shield that protects them from the sun’s rays. Through visual juxtaposition, Boyle aligns these with the cornea of the human eye. Jesus said the eye is the light of the body and its gaze is to be kept holy (Matthew 6:22-23). He alludes to the Law of Moses to condemn the rulers of Jerusalem for their treatment of the common people. As wandering stars (Jude 1:13), their golden lampstand, the seven eyes of God, would be removed.

Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the Lord against thee, and it be sin unto thee. (Deuteronomy 15:9, KJV)

Together, the Icarus Iand Icarus IIconstitute a pair of eyes staring at the sun. Two legal witnesses, two golden cherubim, two covenants with their sacrifices, two Adams,were required to finish the old order of darkness and enable men to “see” the face of God.

King Solomon made shields of beaten gold (1 Kings 10:16) in the days when gold was so plenteous that silver was relatively worthless. Boyle continually plays on the contrast between gold and silver throughout the film. Even the space suits are gold (brilliant but heavy and cumbersome) rather than silver. The payload is silver, a giant cube attached to the back of the shield, a burden so dense that it generates its own gravitational pull. This is Sunshine’smanmade Holy of Holies, and the sight of it, sans shield, tumbling into the sun, is breathtaking. This is the moment when time actually stops, the surreal distortion field around Pinbacker envelops the entire payload, and true atonement comes to pass. Cassie, Capa’s companion, the only other surviving member of the crew, as a willing “Eve,” says,

Finish it.

Not only is, per Jung, the circle “squared” by the heat of the sun, Capa stands within the payload on a cruciform catwalk. Behind him are suspended the coruscating silver “stars” of the ignition sequence. Before him is a wall of fire, the “face” of the sun in this extended, holy nano-day.He reaches out his hand to touch it and becomes the light of all men. As a better Icarus who rises with healing in his wings, he sends his spirit as sunlight to bring new life — a global resurrection — to the earth.

Capa:So if you wake up one morning and it’s a particularly beautiful day, you’ll know we made it.

The best writers cannot help but tell God’s story. What moderns, including Christians, misperceive as nonsensical horrors are in truth a revelation of the sons of God.

Searle: You and the darkness are distinct from each other because darkness is an absence of something, it’s a vacuum. But total light envelops you. It becomes you.

In one sense at least, there is nothing new under the sun.

Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in Australia, and author, most recently, of “Dark Sayings: Essays for the Eyes of the Heart. This post originally appeared on his blog, HERE. This essay is the opening salvo from Dark Sayings: Essays for the Eyes of the Heart.

References   [ + ]

1. Commentary on Psalm 19:2 in Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible.
2. “Genres: The Secret to Your Success,” John Truby’s Screenwriting Take, February 24, 2011. johntrubysscreenwriting.blogspot.com.au
3. At the opening of the film, the Fox Searchlight title sequence runs in reverse so that it ends with the setting of the sun.
4. Brian Holcomb, SUNSHINE Movie Review, kinetofilm.blogspot.com.au, November 2, 2009.
5. Anthony Ha, Ten years later, “Sunshine” remains one of the bleakest and most beautiful sci-fi movies ever made,com, September 4, 2017.