SUNSHINE And The Conversations Of An Alex Garland Ensemble

The science fiction writer/director’s character work attracts talented casts and serves as his key storytelling tool.

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Even for someone who loves the movie, it’s a bit surreal to look at the cast for Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s 2007 underloved science fiction/surreal horror hybrid Sunshine today. Cillian Murphy, the film’s ultimate lead, is the most unsurprising of the picture’s cast. He’d worked with both Boyle and Garland before as the lead in their seminal rage zombie pic 28 Days Later.

But alongside Murphy? There’s Chris Evans, four years before he’d pick up Captain America’s shield. There’s Rose Byrne, four years before she’d announce her comic chops with Bridesmaids. There’s Benedict Wong, a few years out from his ongoing tour of science fiction and superhero films. There are Māori and Japanese character actors Cliff Curtis and Hiroyuki Sanada, and the legendary Michelle Yeoh. There, behind eerie camera distortions and impressively ghoulish burn makeup, is champion British Villain Mark Strong. Even Fonda descendant Troy Garity, the most obscure member of the cast, has been working consistently since the late 1990s.

In other words? Sunshine has one hell of an ensemble, and to the last they do homerun work in the film. They and the story they told alongside Garland and Boyle have been on my mind lately. Why? Annihilation, Garland’s sixth film as a screenwriter and second as a director, is imminent. It boasts a cast as impressive and distinct as Sunshine’s: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez of Jane the Virgin, Tessa Thompson and Oscar Isaac.

Pondering Sunshine, Annihilation and their ensembles, a thought struck me. Alex Garland’s casts of characters are his key storytelling tool. The momentum of his plots, the exploration of his themes and the realization of his ideas, all turn on Garland’s ensembles. How they relate to each other. What they do to each other. What happens to their group under pressure. Those interactions are the building blocks of an Alex Garland science fiction film. If you were to reduce Garland’s storytelling style to a single broad concept, that concept would be conversation.

How prominent that central conversation is to the film varies across Garland’s body of work. It’s the full-on explicit text of his directorial debut, the superb Ex Machina, a movie built on the Turing Test for artificial intelligence. It’s a running (pardon the pun) process in 28 Days Later, particularly in the fraught and eternally transforming relationship between Murphy’s traumatized, optimistic Jim and Naomi Harris’ determinedly pragmatic Selena. It’s inverted in Never Let Me Go, where so much of the main characters’ anguish is born from what they know and do not know but are too afraid or too ashamed to tell anyone or ask. And it takes on an odd, mutant form in Dredd, where the hero (a joint performance by Karl Urban and his jawline), by design and will, is entirely defined by an unyielding external code. He becomes both a mentor and an ideological obstacle for Olivia Thirlby’s Cadet Judge Anderson, who seeks to serve people through the Law, rather than strictly serving the Law as Dredd almost always does.

And of course, there is Sunshine, my personal favorite of the films Garland has worked on. I could ramble for twenty thousand words about how it has a wonderful ensemble, indelible imagery, one of the best scores of the last decade and a genuinely moving vision of heroism. But for the sake of brevity and my thesis, I’d like to examine one of the picture’s central relationships, and thereby dig into the way Garland uses language and character interaction to drive narrative and theme.

The crew of the Icarus II, the ship where most of Sunshine takes place, are united by their desperate mission to save humanity. They never lose sight of this, and Garland draws attention to the moments of joy and intimacy they share in the course of their mission. Even as Sunshine becomes increasingly bleak, these moments never disappear entirely, and continue all the way to the climax.

But shared purpose and shared joy do not mean the crew are uniform in their ideals or their approach to the mission. Interpersonal conflict is rife, and occasionally bubbles over, particularly between Evans’ Mace and Murphy’s Capa. Mace, a military engineer, is driven, pragmatic, and places great value in personal responsibility even as he struggles with the vast length of the mission. He struggles to relate to the melancholy, uncertain bomb tech Capa who questions whether or not his bomb will even work and finds himself increasingly haunted by the ever-oncoming sun, to the point where it dominates his dreams. After a fight, they can’t even apologize to each other without arguing over who should apologize first, and ultimately choose to let things just sort of trail off rather than seek an actual resolution.

Mace and Capa’s conflict is a microcosm for the greater travail the whole crew faces; their mission to the sun is unlike anything ever attempted by humanity, the stakes are ultimately so vast that trying to comprehend it past a certain point is actively bad for one’s mental health (Strong’s character, the captain of the failed first Icarus mission, descends into murderous, pseudo-religious delusion and the Icarus II crew all develop what they recognize as eccentricities of varying health). Nevertheless, it has to get done. That inescapable fact is where Mace and Capa find common ground. If humanity is to survive, if their now inevitable deaths are to be more to them than oblivion, they have to do the job. Sunshine pits the crew of the Icarus II against the sheer vastness of the cosmos, against the terror of death and the temptations of monomania. I’d like to close with a segment from Sunshine’s screenplay that argues how such foes might be faced:

MACE:

No time. Just listen. I’m going to try again. But if I fail, there’s one last option. I know how you can get the ship out of orbit. (Beat.) Separate the payload. Separate the payload. Do you get it, Capa?

CAPA:

I get it.

MACE:

Then you’ll have to get to the bomb. And initiate it from the console. (Beat.) Don’t ask me how. Just… (Beat.) Just make it happen.

A long beat.

MACE:

Okay. (Beat.) I’m going to do this.

CAPA:

(quiet)

Copy, Mace.

MACE:

Copy.

And that was them saying goodbye.

On its own, that’s a well-written conclusion to one of Sunshine’s key relationships, a final conversation that brings closure to Mace and Capa’s shared arc while reinforcing the film’s themes. In the hands of Evans and Murphy, it becomes one of the movie’s finest moments, proof positive for the value of an ensemble. It not only reflects well on them as performers, but on Garland as a writer, one who uses his strength with dialogue and character interaction to both eloquently express the themes he’s exploring and draw in collaborators who bring that language to life and create a worthy film.

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