Some people say that Sunshine‘s third act betrays the first two. They say that it’s unintelligent, that it’s nonsensical, that it ruins the entire film. I heard this opinion enough times before watching Sunshine that I expected to feel the same way. However, I found that while I can see why they take offense, I don’t agree with them at all.
I have two issues with this viewpoint. First and foremost, Act Three has some incredible moments that, while they result from Pinbecker’s actions, don’t directly involve him. Mace plunging into the coolant; Capa struggling to reach the separated part of the ship, and his leap, his decision to make his nightmares a reality; the shot of the cube overlaid onto Cassie’s face that takes you right into this unimaginable situation with her, her colours and shapes contrasting with the monumental heat and power and light of the sun; Capa’s final milliseconds, perhaps a gift from some greater power, be it a spiritual being or the sun itself, or perhaps from the power of humankind’s own genius and bravery; the fade into white, and out of it, a return to our home, the world the Icarus II‘s crew have fought so hard to save. Do people really still feel bothered about Sunshine consorting with the slasher genre while they’re watching all of that?
Second, nearly everything that happens in the last forty minutes has been established, in some form, in earlier scenes. The audience just doesn’t know it at the time. There’s Pinbecker’s messages; Mace working on the mainframe; the mysterious but powerful and obvious effects that approaching the sun has on the human mind; the unknowability of what will happen when the bomb plunges into the sun; and Capa’s expectations of, and hopes for, how this mission will end. Pinbecker’s appearance is a plot twist that’s supposed to be shocking, but Sunshine hardly makes a complete break with the first two acts.
It’s true that Sunshine, up to this point, seems to be a literal or rational film, and that Pinbecker can’t be fully explained without getting subjective or symbolic. Perhaps he looks blurry because he’s so disfigured that the crew can’t interpret or cope with what they’re seeing, or they may be experiencing oxygen deprivation and borderline insanity. Or perhaps he may have spent so long so near to the sun that he has been warped by unknown forces, or he may be a human representative of the sun, granted some measure of its characteristics. His ability to pick Capa up with one arm can be ascribed to the reduced gravity on the plummeting cube—but the fact that he survives an unprotected blast from the sun in the observation room doesn’t seem physically possible, and it’s a sticking point. He really does defy the audience’s expectations, and whether or not someone accepts that is entirely up to them.
Personally, I don’t think Pinbecker is a flaw. I enjoy the way that he’s filmed, and the ways it may be interpreted. The reveal that he is onboard Icarus II is chilling, and what he may represent—the idea that humankind’s ultimate end is so inevitable, and renders all of its existence so meaningless, that we may as well all be destroyed now rather than continue to struggle—is unshakeably powerful. But Boyle gives us light and lets us decide for ourselves what it is, and if it aligns with whatever it is that makes our own lives meaningful.