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Danny Boyle on “Sunshine”

Danny Boyle on “Sunshine” (photo)

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It may seem peculiar that Danny Boyle would fancy himself an optimist, considering his films cover unsettling topics like heroin addiction (“Trainspotting”), screwing over friends (“Shallow Grave”), and a flat-out, zombie-like apocalypse (“28 Days Later”). “The scenarios pick themselves,” claims the beloved British director, who strives with each new film to make “the biggest challenge possible to that human spirit.” That’s clearly the case in the bleak future portrayed in “Sunshine,” Boyle’s foray into the intelligent, philosophically curious realm of classic science fiction. Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne and Chris Evans star as crew members of the spaceship Icarus II, who are on the ultimate suicide mission to save planet Earth in 2057: to reignite our dying sun, they must drop a bomb the size of Manhattan onto its surface. Getting there is easy, but coming back? Well, let’s just say the Icarus I never made it home, and if you studied your Greek mythology, things aren’t faring well for the wings of its successor. When talking with Boyle about his latest film, the topic of science makes him wild-eyed and giddy, making it hard to believe he didn’t try out the sci-fi genre sooner. [WARNING: Minor spoilers follow!]

Some of the early “Sunshine” reviews use a descriptor that I’m not sure I agree with: “metaphysical.” The film melds science, spirituality and existentialism, but would you call it that? Or are the so-called metaphysics found only in the inexplicable, third-act reappearance of Icarus I’s Captain Pinbacker?

People think Pinbacker is a figure from horror, like a cinematic figure. What we were trying to do was make something that… like, when you get to the surface of the sun, it’s not a tea party. Nobody’s going to sit down, have a debate, and politely serve tea. Anything goes because nobody knows the rules. Nobody knows whether we’d freeze in time, or stretch, or bend. So we thought, what would happen if you exposed yourself to this energy like he’s done? What makes him up? You’re space, basically. Everybody says you’re water, but you’re not. You’re basically empty space held together, so you’re solid to me. What if Pinbacker had been exposed, so that all his protons and neutrons had been reorganized? He was literally shifting in front of you. It would be a challenge to the mission in political terms, because he’s a fundamentalist and believes science is wrong now; we must bow down to God’s will, and nature must take its pitiless course. He’s not only a challenge to that, but to Cillian’s sanity about what is possible, whether he can keep his sanity and do his job: deliver the science.

Do you see Pinbacker as a tangible, or are we just experiencing him through the panicked perspective of crew members who can’t get a grasp on who or what he is?

Exactly, they can’t. I don’t know if you can define that, whether it’s him or that whole Wittgenstein thing: do you exist when you go out of the room, or do you only exist when I see you — and the same for you to me? [laughs] That’s how Cillian and Rose see him, but they’re the only ones that actually see him. In their minds, that’s how he exists, certainly. So, in a way, he is metaphysical. His voice is real, he speaks as a human, and his fundamentalism is representative of something on Earth that we understand now: there are people who regard our attempts at science as being futile, that we should actually go back to the villages and wait for God. [laughs] And, you know, that is a human voice. It’s a contradiction to the science, but physically, what he represents is something meta.

You’ve said that science is arrogant. I presume you mean scientists, specifically?

They’re extraordinary. We had this one guy who was the sweetest man, but fuck me, arrogant? You think you get arrogant people in the movie world? [laughs] It’s just extraordinary, I love it. That is science, really. It has to have this incredible idea that you can travel to the sun — this thing indescribably greater than anything we can imagine — and they don’t just think they can change it, they will it. That’s the level of arrogance they have. You can also read it as audacious, if you want to be more positive about it. And you want science to be audacious because that’s how we find a vaccine for malaria, y’know? That’s precisely why we progress, because we won’t go back to villages. For whatever reason, whether good or bad in the short-term, our dedication to cities, progress and science in the long-term is astonishing. That’s the path we’re all on together, apart from the Taliban. It will enhance and maintain life given us by the start. That’s a good thing, I think.

Speaking of progress, why aren’t there more sci-fi films today that are actual science fiction, rather than just action movies set against futuristic backdrops?

Interesting, I sort of know why there isn’t. It’s precisely because — like “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” — fantasy is free. You can think of anything, but this kind of sci-fi is very restricted. Because we’ve only been up in steel tubes, these films tend to boil down to the same three ingredients: a ship, a crew and a signal. Until we colonize, there will always be that restriction on the amount of stories you can tell about it. In fact, it’s very difficult to make one that isn’t reminiscent of another one. They’re really closely bound together, and I learned making [“Sunshine”] how narrow a corridor it was that you’re moving in.

There may be some overlapping ideas with “Solaris” or “2001,” but it’s still more thought-provoking than some intergalactic shoot-em-up.

They’re a bit more serious. That was something that was extraordinary, was how difficult it is to get humor in them. Chris Evans got some in for us because he’s very deft at that, but it’s fucking difficult. [laughs] When you look back at those other ones, they’re very serious. The whole film passes without a laugh, some of them. You can’t have romance in them, either. We had obvious candidate roles; Cillian’s could easily have gone romantic, or Chris’ relationship. And we tried that at script stage, it didn’t work. Just laughable. They kiss, and you think “Fuck off, that’s nonsense!” They tried it in “2010,” and it didn’t work there. You watch it, and it’s slightly embarrassing and weird. We had an amazing sex scene worked out, but we didn’t shoot it [because] it was inappropriate.

But they are doing research into sex. We heard that they’d taken pig semen up into the space station to impregnate in weightless conditions, then presumably bring it back to see whether exposure to weightlessness has an effect on procreation. If they’re planning long-term space travel, that’s obviously one of the things they’ve got to know about. Do they sterilize people before they go? It’s astonishing. They’re working 50 or 100 years ahead. They have to. That’s where a lot of our information came from, like the oxygen garden. They won’t store oxygen because it’s impossible on the levels that they need; they’ll have to create it. We had a lot of exotic plants for visual reasons, but theirs will just be fern gardens because ferns are really good producers of oxygen.

[As for] the cooking thing, “2001” is nonsense: packaged bits of cellophane food and microwaves, they won’t do that. The cycle of nurturing and growing your food — gathering it, cooking it, eating it, washing up — that cycle, and the smell of cooking, is crucial to people’s sanity far away from home. Once they solve the weightless problem, which they may never do, they’re really concerned about the psychology of deep space travel. We read this really interesting book [called “Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth”] by a journalist named Andrew Smith, who had this clever idea. He tried to talk to all the people who had been to the moon. Two of them are dead now, and there are only about 12 left. They talked about going around the dark side of the moon because they’re the only representatives of our species who have ever been out of contact with the earth, and it marked them all. The 45 minutes when there was no radio contact with NASA, and all they see is eternity out there…

I had no idea what a science nut you truly are. Would you want to travel the cosmos?

Oh yeah! I’ve done weightlessness up in that plane. I’ve never done anything like it, I’ve gotta tell you. Initially, [the sensation] is just terror. Your body kicks in and goes mad. They warn you about this, because everybody’s the same. Your reaction is to start swimming like you’ve been thrown into a deep pool. Your mind and body don’t understand what’s going on, so you start kicking to get back to the surface. The first three or four times you do it, you can’t stop yourself. They warn you not to do it, but everybody’s doing it because your body’s saying, “I’m falling, I’m out of control.” Then gradually, the mind begins to understand it. Each block is 30 seconds long, we did it about 25 times, and by the end, it’s very mellow: whooooa.

If technology caught up tomorrow, and the government was ready for the first 10,000 guinea pigs to colonize Mars, would you leave this planet behind?

Wouldn’t you? The other thing they talked about in this [Andrew Smith] book was when the astronauts went to the moon, the scientists were very confident they could get them safely to the moon. But they were less than 50% sure they could get them back, yet none of them dropped out. They all wanted to go. I think, given we all have unresolved issues on Earth with people, you’d want to go. One of the pleasures of doing a film like this is that you get a perspective on your life that’s different than the everyday thing. You think, “Wow, that is really bigger than all of my obsessions and concerns.” To feel so small, it gives you a modesty. You feel like you slot in somewhere, part of a pattern. We’re all so obsessed with individualism and success, and you’re just a tiny little moment in this huge thing, y’know? To see a bit more of that would be extraordinary.

“Sunshine” opens in wide release on July 20th (official site).

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

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Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

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Lane 33: Twins

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Lane 27: Broken Windows

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Lane 69: Filthy Cars

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Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

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Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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