It is easy, when faced with a power that cannot be comprehended on a human scale, for humans to interpret that power as God or an act of God. This is the symptom that all of the characters in Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) face, each in their own unique way. But what is links all of them together, other than the situations that they are faced with, is that the Sun is the determining power pushing their actions. After all, the mission that the six men and two women of the Icarus II mission are tasked with is the creation of a new star within a dying one. It quickly becomes clear though that the Sun is more than just the target of the mission for some of the characters. And this is how Sunshine chooses to demonstrate the effects of incomprehensible power on humans, by illustrating their own unique forms of worship or resistance when faced with the Sun itself.
As for worship, the characters of Dr. Searle and Captain Pinbacker embody the extremes of this side of the coin. For Searle, the Sun is something that he wants to experience as much of as humanly possible. The audience is first introduced to Searle as he basks in the Sun in the observation room. But he is not simply enjoying the light; he is attempting to push his experience of the Sun past the human limit. As the film progresses, the symptoms of Searle’s worship can be plainly seen. His skin becomes increasingly tan and eventually he has numerous instances of his skin peeling away on his face. But the effects of his worship are not limited to his physical body as they also extend to his mind and his perceptions of the world around him.
When Searle witnesses Kaneda’s immolation by the heat of the Sun, he is less concerned with the fact that he is witnessing his captain burn to death, and instead he repeatedly asks Kaneda what he is seeing. Searle wishes to experience the full brilliance of the Sun for himself, but he resists the urge to do so as he knows that this would lead to his death. In the end, Searle does allow himself to experience the Sun unfiltered, but this is only after he knows that his fate is sealed. Searle may worship the Sun as God, but he will not allow himself to become a zealot. Even though he recommends basking in the Sun to others, he does so on an informal basis and prescribes the Earth Room to his patients as he recognizes that they are not the same as him in his love for the nearest star. The Sun may envelope Dr. Searle, but in the end he is able to separate his own love and even lust for it from the rest of the world. Searle evades the pitfall that is zealotry, even if he does allow his love for the closest thing that he can equate to God to cloud his vision in some ways.
On the other end of this spectrum is Captain Pinbacker. While Pinbacker does not treat the Sun as God, he does treat is as something of a messenger of God. Pinbacker believes that the failing of the Sun is God’s choice as to how humanity should die, and that man should not challenge this choice. Going even further, the crazed captain believes that he has become a messenger from God, and that it is his duty to ensure that mankind does not survive. All of this is rather simple though, but what is interesting is how the film handles Pinbacker as a character. Pinbacker is never shown as he was when he was still purely human, with the exceptions of a crew photograph and a video in which he marvels at the lethalness of the universe. But by the time he enters truly the film, Pinbacker has already become something that the film itself cannot comprehend. By consistently portraying him as a blurry, shaky enigma, Pinbacker is shown exactly as what he is: a being that is beyond the realm of human comprehension.
Pinbacker is truly insane, but this does not preclude him from ascending in his own way. Bearing the scars of his worship on his body, Pinbacker has taken his reverence farther than any of the other characters in the film. Searle is the only one that comes close to this level of worship of the Sun, and his worship is of a fundamentally different sort. Whereas Searle sees the Sun as God, Pinbacker sees the Sun as God’s catalyst for mankind’s extinction. And while Searle is eager to ensure the rebirth of his object of worship, Pinbacker considers the Sun just as terminal as he is. Both men consider man nothing more than stardust in the end, but their differing beliefs lead to drastically different approaches to how they handle the presence of something so powerful that they cannot wholly understand. But Pinbacker does not truly grasp his place in the universe. While he may consider the Sun a being of great power, he believes himself to be of an equal level of power. By believing that he has spoken with God, and therefore that he too is a catalyst of God, Pinbacker has become something that cannot be understood by those around him. All of the members or the crew of Icarus II have their own objects of worship, but like Searle, none of them fall into believing that they are greater than the rest because of what they believe.
Whereas Capa may hold faith in man’s ability to create a new Sun, and Mace holds unwavering dedication to that mission no matter the cost, in the end all of them hold on to their humanity because of their belief that they can save the human species, and also because they fundamentally understand the respective forces that they are facing. Even when they are debating on whether or not to kill a member of their own crew, Trey, they are doing so because they know that their mission is something that is more important than they are. Whether or not their decision is the correct one is irrelevant when considered in contrast to the mission that Pinbacker sets himself on. All of Pinbacker’s decisions are with the intent goal of seeing the end of humanity, and so his humanity is lost. Those that he comes up against are still clinging to theirs, or at least their own perceptions of it, but this does not save all of them. Corazon is killed clutching the remains of her treasured oxygen garden, the only thing that she has ever been shown having true passion for. But her love for the garden is also reinforced by the fact that it is keeping the entire crew alive. In the end, this devotion extends to the calculations as to how many need to die in order for the mission to be completed. But this is in the same vein as the debate over Trey’s life, as all of it is to ensure the survival of the species overall.
If Sunshine considers humanity and essential feature for a human to be understood, then it is no surprise that Pinbacker is portrayed as he is. All of the crewmembers of the Icarus II demonstrate their humanity in one way or another, but Pinbacker is directly their inverse. He did not directly kill his crew, but rather they allowed themselves to be immolated by the Sun. There is no indication that Pinbacker forced this fate upon them and their death positions are not compromising or ones that would indicate peril. Instead, Pinbacker and his crew accepted their fates as nothing but stardust that has no right to alter their course through time. In this action, their humanity is lost as they succumbed to what they perceived as God. Searle chooses the same fate as them, but not because he accepts his fate as nothing but stardust, but rather because he seizes the moment to truly experience his god. The differing reactions of the crew to their respective exposures to the Sun show how they react to the most powerful force around them. Kaneda dies screaming, but Searle is more overwhelmed than put into a state of pain. As for Pinbacker, his repeated exposures to the Sun are ones of reverence but they take a great physical toll on him. Ultimately undone because his body has been weakened to the point that his flesh can be torn apart simply by another human, Pinbacker’s zealotry is his downfall.
By embodying something that cannot be comprehended, a being that seeks the death of all humans, Pinbacker reaches the status of something that is more powerful than any other being in the film. The Sun, despite its place of reverence by many of the humans, can be comprehended by the film, and even by the humans within the film. Searle comprehends its potential power, Mace its necessity, and Capa its processes. But Pinbacker does not understand it, and because of this he misinterprets his own notions to the point that he becomes insane. Pinbacker believes that he is speaking to God because this is the only way he can comprehend the madness that is ravaging him. And this madness is brought on because Pinbacker has encountered something that he cannot understand: his own place in the universe. For him, God justifies his actions. For the crew of the Icarus II, God comes in many forms, but all of them are physical. In the end though, God is not found in Sunshine. Instead, God is a distraction, a red herring for all of the humans. God takes the place of things that they cannot understand. For Searle, the Sun is God. For Corazon, it is her oxygen garden and the life it represents. None of them can fully understand the forces that they are facing, not even their computer, and so God takes the place of these forces. Only Pinbacker speaks of God, but their reverence for their respective devotions makes the connection clear.
At the film’s conclusion, Capa succeeds as he rebirths the Sun. He too is immolated, but his experience is markedly different from those of Kaneda or Searle. Capa witnesses the Sun’s power firsthand. He creates it and he understands it. As he stands before its power he is not afraid, but rather he is fascinated and impressed by it. As Capa is immolated, he does not gasp in awe or pain, but rather he accepts his fate. He has overcome the hindrances posed by both those around him and the pitfalls of misplaced reverence and because of this he is able to complete his mission. He may die in the end, but he is the only one whom has successfully done what he set out to do, and he has done so because he did not fall for the various gods presented in the film. The reverence that Capa shows towards the process for creating a new Sun is one of understanding. The forces revered as God in Sunshine are those that are not understood by humans, but Capa avoids this by focusing on the power of humans, and because of this he is successful.