architectural visualisation / design / digital art

Case Study – Sunshine (2007) – Fascinating vs. Terrifying Sublime

The movie ‘Sunshine’ illustrates the concept of ‘sublime‘ better than anything else I came across so far. It emphasises every aspect of it and in the end it presents two typical reactions humans have when confronted with greatness beyond comprehension. If you haven’t watched it, please be aware this article contains spoilers.

The movie is about a space crew (Icarus 2) sent sent on a mission towards the Sun. Its objective is to get as close as possible to the surface of the dying star in order to drop a powerful bomb that should reignite it and thus save mankind from extinction. In order to be able to approach the Sun, the spaceship is shielded by a huge circular mirror which reflects the lethal rays.

On Schopenhauer’s scale, the first categories of sublime experienced by the crew members are the lowest feeling of sublime (“light reflected off stones; pleasure from beholding objects that pose no threat, yet themselves are devoid of life”) – when they enter the orbit of Mercury, and the lower feeling of sublime (“endless desert with no movement; pleasure from seeing objects that could not sustain the life of the observer”).

From the safety of the spaceship, the vast cosmic space and the celestial bodies are perceived with a mix of fascination and terror.
The crew members can see the Sun from the observation room situated right behind the gigantic circular mirror, but only at extremely low intensities that would not cause any retinal damage. Searle, the crew’s psychiatrist, spends hours every day in the observation room simply watching the Sun while gradually lowering the protection filter. At 3.1% of the star’s real intensity, the human eye is only able to watch for 30 seconds without irreversible damage. There you have it – greatness beyond comprehension and physical capability. And Searle is fascinated by it! His face becomes burnt from repeatedly watching the giant star. He becomes aware of his own nothingness (“Remember, Capa, we’re just stardust”) and develops mystical tendencies:

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. It’s very strange. I – I recommend it!

On the other hand, the rest of the crew members feel an unconscious terror as they get closer and closer to the Sun; the terror manifests as nightmares in which they are drawn towards the surface of the star, waking up in the moment of collision.

Later in the movie the ship is diverted from its trajectory and a few rays manage to get past the mirror for a few seconds, provoking irreversible damage. Two members of the crew are forced to exit the ship to investigate the burns. Inside the huge space suits they realise the fragility of their condition in an environment that could prove fatal in case anything goes wrong. Not moving fast enough would expose them to the Sun rays which would kill them instantly. The safety of the shield is not absolute; their mission is to move fast so that the oxygen reserve does not run out, and also act very carefully, as any damage to their suits would imply instant death in an extremely low temperature.
On Schopenhauer’s scale, they encountered the average feeling of sublime: “turbulent Nature; pleasure from perceiving objects that threaten to hurt or destroy observer.”
Before returning to the safety of the ship, captain Kaneda falls behind near the edge of the shield and although he would have time to reach safety, he remains petrified, to the exasperation of the crew. Realising that he would soon see the Sun from such close-up without any protection entices him, bringing about his immediate death.

Capa: You have to move now! Captain! Have to move! Why isn’t he moving?
Searle: Kaneda. What do you see?

Getting close to the detonation point triggers the full feeling of sublime (“overpowering turbulent Nature; pleasure from beholding very violent, destructive objects”). The crew members are overwhelmed by the size and detail of the Star, but in the same time realise they’re far from comprehending it. There it is, the giant furnace that not only sustains life, but also somehow brought us into existence; provided the building bricks that compose our bodies and ecosystems; it’s closer and closer, bigger and bigger, but still nothing changes in the safety of the space ship; the temperature is the same and the daily routines continue without exception. If only one could get a glimpse of the Sun without any protective filter, allowing the light and landscape to envelop them in their totality!
Just as Searle became enticed by this thought, Pinbacker – one of the scientists on the previous mission, Icarus1, became so obsessed with it that he put it into practice.
“Pinbacker suffered a psychotic break and became fanatically religious, believing that it was God’s will that humanity die. He proceeded to abandon the mission and lock the crew into the solarium and expose them to unshielded rays of sunlight, burning them alive” (source).

The fullest feeling of sublime (“immensity of Universe’s extent or duration; pleasure from knowledge of observer’s nothingness and oneness with Nature”) is experienced by Capa when he realises his nightmare will come true – he will actually reach the surface of the Sun along with the bomb he detonated. Knowing that he successfully completed the mission and saved mankind relieved him of his terrors, leaving room only for the fascination of the encounter – what’s it going to be like when he will see and touch the surface of the Sun? The cry of pain and terror ceases in the slow motion moment, and he is at peace – finally surrendered, finally one with the totality of the life-giving star.

Many reviewers thought the movie was trying to make a point about the conflict between science and religion. In my opinion, the movie presents two metaphysical positions that arise when confronted with the sublime character of nature. The first one can be described as “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (“Do not go gentle into that good night”, by Dylan Thomas). It is the belief that humans have a sacred duty to control nature, to perpetuate life and civilisation; that our tools are reliable and can prevent our descending into Hell. Although he’s a declared atheist, Capa repeatedly states that the success of the mission cannot be proven, for when the bomb will get too close to the sun the chemical transformations will be impossible to predict. Before the imminent collision, he sets the bomb multiplier to a random value based on his intuition, saying the memorable words: “Let’s say 25. Set at 25.” Only after that he surrenders to the totality of Nature and find peace.

The other position humans have when confronted with the sublime is nihilistic fundamentalism. In the words of Pinbacker: “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. Unto this dust, we return. When he chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God.”
Although this is the typical attitude of many religious death cults, you can find it in Lars von Trier’s atheistic philosophy, or in the letters of H. P. Lovecraft.
This attitude is not universal among religious fundamentalists, as it implies a specific mysticism and openness towards the Unknown. Many fundamentalist religions worship a god that is not located in the unknown, but in the familiar rituals, discipline and virtues of that particular religion. These religions shun any form of mysticism and replace it with discipline and orderliness.

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