Thursday, June 14, 2012

Decoding the Third Act of Danny Boyle's 'Sunshine'

Five years ago Danny Boyle embarked on a mission to reinvent the sci fi genre, but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Four years ago, I and a crew of two roommates watched the film as if frozen in a solar winter. The film delivered a payload of an Awesomeness Bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island. Its purpose was to get the box office registers ringing. It had failed.          

Sunshine became a cult classic. Everything from John Murphy’s music to Alex Garland’s script became the circle jerk content for movie geeks around the world. It bombed without a trace at the box office - not just because it was badly marketed, but also because most critics and audiences dismissed the third act as a ‘slasher film’. They failed to see the bigger picture.    
I feel like a lone astronaut strapped to the back of a bomb. Welcome to the third act.     

Until now, the crew of Icarus II, who were on their mission to re-ignite the sun have diverted course and discovered the Icarus I after receiving a distress signal. While changing course the Icarus II navigator fucks up the heat shield alignment which results in the deaths of the captain and irreparably damages the ship’s oxygen garden. 

The Icarus II crew climbs aboard and explores the Icarus I, when suddenly the airlocks that bridge the two ships decouple and are destroyed. Only crewmember Capa (who originally made the decision to divert course) manages to return to Icarus II. He makes plans with the other three in the ship to at least complete the mission and save mankind, knowing that there isn’t enough oxygen to return home.

Inside the ship, Capa makes a startling discovery. The ship’s computer says ‘There isn’t enough oxygen to complete the mission. You will not live long enough to even deliver the payload. Four crew could survive on the Icarus. There are five crew members’.

Now here is when the ‘slasher’ film begins. We’re shown that Pinbacker (the captain of the Icarus I, who had gone mad and killed everyone on board and sabotaged the mission) has somehow made his way into the Icarus II and is repeating his actions. After a few jump scares and crazy action sequences Capa overthrows Pinbacker and heroically saves mankind.       

Now let’s stop to think for a second: Throughout the third act, Pinbacker only has a ‘spectral’ presence. Boyle shakes and moves the camera around and throws in some severe grading and lighting to obscure Pinbacker. We never see his complete form – all we see are hallucinogenic flashes of him.

Why was Pinbacker never shown clearly? And how the heck did he simply walk from Icarus I to II without anyone noticing, without any oxygen mask? How did he get past the airlocks? Surely someone aboard the Icarus II would’ve noticed a random guy attempting to enter their ship.

Answer: There WAS no Pinbacker.

Pinbacker was a figment of Capa’s imagination. He was the exemplification of the Capa’s 'madness' that was forcing him to fail the mission. The same paranoia that caused the crew of Icarus I to fail the mission. In space no one can hear you go batshit insane.

Only Capa sees Pinbacker. We never see Pinbacker with any other character in the film other than Capa. There is not a single frame that Kappa and Pinbacker share with a third character. Because Pinbacker is Capa.

Corazon (Michelle Yeoh ) the Botanist is stabbed in the back to death by flickering images of Pinbacker, but she never really sees who stabbed her.

Then Cassie (Rose Byrne) the pilot is stalked by Pinbacker in the dark, though she never knows who or what is stalking her. She lunges on the ‘stalking body’ and stabs it on the arm, and looks puzzled and shocked at the bleeding shadowy shape in front of her. We are never shown that it is Pinbacker, because that is Capa, and she is clearly baffled by this.

Capa, who was trapped in an airlock by Pinbacker manages to blow it open, blasts through space, and reaches the huge payload room. In the vast room he finds Cassie alone who just stares at him, frightened. Capa asks Cassie where Pinbacker is, and she is unable to snap out of the shellshock and fear.

Pinbacker suddenly appears out of nowhere and attacks him. It would be ridiculous that Pinbacker was real, because that would mean Capa and Cassie failed to spot him running towards them in a room that spans hundreds of feet. There is no Pinbacker. This is Capa’s madness indulging in a last ditch effort to sabotage the mission.

Pinbacker and Capa reach the edge of the payload, while Cassie looks on stunned. She is witnessing Capa attempting suicide.

She manages to pull Capa back, and the two tumble to the bottom of the payload crevice. Capa leaves Pinbacker behind and comes to his senses. 


 After a knowing look to Pinbacker who stands very far away from him, Capa gets up, manually unlocks the payload, and completes the mission, embracing his death in a fiery ball of sun’s radiation. 

Sunshine  wasn’t a slasher movie downgrade, Boyle gleefully played around with existential themes, with his trademark flashy showmanship. All you have to is look out for a little extra brightness in the dark frames of the third act. And when you wake up one morning and it's a particularly beautiful day, you'll know you’ve understood the film.


  1. nice post but movie would have been better with salman khan in it!! BHAI rocks <3 <3

  2. Brilliant post! I liked Sunshine even with the thought of slasher movie towards the end but this is a whole new level

  3. "Then Cassie (Rose Byrne) the pilot is stalked by Pinbacker in the dark, though she never knows who or what is stalking her. She lunges on the ‘stalking body’ and stabs it on the arm, and looks puzzled and shocked at the bleeding shadowy shape in front of her.We are never shown that it is Pinbacker, because that is Capa, and she is clearly baffled by this. "

    If she stabbed Capa why no wound on him? I think it might be a minor oversight by the director. Overall great analysis on the write up, makes me want to watch it again this time, I remember watching it when it came out. Couldn't decode the plot then, but even though I enjoyed the film I kept wondering why Danny chose a slasher route for this subject.

    After reading your article this makes me think, Did the writers and directors, consciously choose not to spoon feed audience. Most films would have a reveal montage like key scenes played out right before the final end. Did they assume their audience to be film literate, that they would get the plot in retrospective, if they did, then that is showing vast amount of faith and respect for the audience. Sadly as audience I failed them.

  4. In fact there are wounds on Capa. He's bloodied all over, thanks to the initial stab on the abdomen from Pinbacker.

  5. Couldn't watch it after Yeoh was stabbed. Too scared.

  6. Brilliant! Now I must rewatch it again this weekend

  7. Watch it, and if you find more clues, post them.

  8. I saw you tweet this post yesterday and decided to download and watch Sunshine. And WHAT A FANTASTIC FILM! I actually liked that it took the 'slasher' route in third act. I love it when a film fuses two or more genres. It has such beautiful and memorables scenes like the one when they all sit together to watch the Mercury or Kaneda's death and many more. Also, what genius of a background score. Rose Byrne is so cute.

    Coming to your post you mention that "Only crew member Capa manages to return to Icarus II." Well, even Mace returns with Capa successfully. May not hold much relevance to your overall theory but still an oversight.

    The theory is quite interesting but I think has a major loophole. Icarus II crew later concludes through their analysis that the airlock was decoupled manually. If there was no Pinbacker then who did that, since Capa was with Mace and others in Icarus I when the incident happened. Also, when Capa told Mace about Pinbacker, Mace saw Capa locked in a chamber. Then how did Capa managed to attack the ladies. Not sure, but I feel it just doesn't fit well in the time-line of the plot.

    I have two more observaions which may actually fit you theory :
    1. There were couple of split-second flashes of some faces when they enter Icarus I(near 47:20 - 47:30 time). Reminded me of the flashes of Brad Pitt used by David Fincher in initial scenes of Fight Club. Or may be I am reading too much and they are just edit mistakes or problem with the file I have.
    2. Pinbacker was unusually efficient and powerful as a murderer given he was stuck alone for 7 years. You saw how did he manage to lift Capa with his single hand at the end?

    I think it's one of those films where makers tried to keep an open end but ovelooked minor plotholes resulting in different interpretations for discerning audience like us. Anyway a fitting post for a great film. Keep them coming!

  9. Yes indeed Mace returns to Icarus II as well. My bad. Good observation regarding the loophole - but I guess Capa timed the decoupling? That would seem more logical than Pinbacker simply walking over to the other side without anyone seeing him.

    The attack on the ladies could well have been before or after he locked himself up in the air lock. We never explicitly witness Mace actually seeing Pinbacker - he simply takes Capa's word.

    Indeed, it was unlikely for Pinbacker to be that inhumanly strong. The flashes were photographs of the crew of Icarus I. Either Boyle wanted to simply show us he crew, or signify that Capa was slowly losing his mind ala Fight Club.