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 Only crewmember Capa (who originally made the decision to divert course) manages to return to Icarus II.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.

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