I recently had a chance to sit through the entirety of Sunshine, the Danny Boyle movie about a team of astronauts taking a nuclear payload to try to re-ignite a dying Sun. And when it was over, I immediately thought of Bong Joon-ho’s movie Snowpiercer—not just because both movies happened to have Chris Evans in them—but because they are very similar, even with their very opposite settings.
The opposites are quite obvious: While Snowpiercer takes place on Earth, Sunshine takes place within close orbit of the Sun; in Snowpiercer, everything around them is dangerously cold, while in Sunshine, the heat and energy of the Sun is the chief natural threat. And while Snowpiercer takes place aboard a train with hundreds of people aboard, Sunshine‘s crew of the Icarus II totals eight.
But it’s in the similarities that things get interesting. (Spoilers follow… these movies have been around long enough now.)
To begin with, it must be said that the science and technology that form the premise of both movies are pretty much garbage. Sunshine‘s premise that, in about 40 years, the Sun will start to lose power, prompting humans to restart it with a nuclear warhead that, even as massive as Manhattan island, is barely an atom beside the mass of the Sun, is just insane on many levels. The story suffers from clearly manufactured crises designed to introduce hardship and whittle down the size of the crew. Even the ship’s AI seems at one point to be smart, and another moronic, depending on the script’s needs. And so many of the movie’s “crises” could have easily been solved by the simple application of automation, robots or remotely-operated drones, that their absence on an otherwise sophisticated space ship is singularly damning.
Compare this to Snowpiercer‘s premise that a single globe-trotting train carries the last of humanity after a botched attempt to halt global warming puts the planet into a deep-freeze. An insane hierarchy rules the train, prompting regular dissension and riots, while the train itself is beginning to break down and requires the additional efforts of people to take the place of failing parts to keep it running. The Snowpiercer has no AI, just Nazi-like soldiers led by a schoolmarm-from-Hell to keep order. And no good reason is ever given for the fact that the train can never stop.
Both movies use elements of nature as a familiar threat—cold versus heat—but also use contentious or crazy humans to represent the more primary threat to success of their endeavors. In both movies, natural human failings cause major issues: In Sunshine, a navigator makes a calculation mistake that kicks off a major disaster on-board the Icarus II… said problem that would not have happened if a single additional member of the crew of eight (or the AI, for God’s sake!) had been involved with the navigator’s decision-making. Snowpiercer‘s biggest human failing is personified by the Conductor, who believes the extreme stratification of the train’s occupants is the only way to keep things functioning.
And both movies have a problem with scale that is unfortunately typical to science fiction movies: In Sunshine, the Icarus II comes across the ill-fated Icarus I, still in solar orbit, and it requires a minor course-correction to come alongside it. We’re talking the Sun, here, and the likelihood that two ships launched at different times would happen to approach the Sun at nearly the same spot—that the other ship would’ve remained in orbit in that spot—or that the Icarus II would only require a minor course correction to reach it—is just too-typically coincidental. In Snowpiercer, the train runs along a track that circumnavigates the continents; however, in one schoolroom scene we are shown the basic layout of the track, and at the speeds the train was clearly moving, one full circumnavigation would only take a few months… not the exact year that is depicted. Both movies choose scales that are poetic or convenient, but nowhere near realistic.
So, in both movies, it is the themes and characterizations that become the major draw of the movies, not the premise or the science/technology involved. Sunshine and Snowpiercer are both about a small group of humans fighting against the bad hand dealt them, and the incredible extreme of natural environments they must face; and both showcase the real threat to human survival: The actions of other humans to sabotage the group, either unknowingly or intentionally, and almost always for selfish or stupid-nigh-unhinged reasons.
Both movies feature a stellar cast, including some notable veterans of science fiction or fantasy productions. Coincidentally, Chris Evans gets to play the same single-minded hero in both movies, dedicated to winning (dropping the payload into the Sun, and reaching the conductor of the train), no matter what. Single-mindedness is dominant in the characters of both movies, with just a touch of eccentricity in a few key characters, at least one outright coward, and a seemingly-indestructible and equally-single-minded antagonist to fight. There are no ambivalent characters here, no one to prompt the audience to second-guess their intentions; every character is pretty much a trope. In the end of both movies, the cast has a distinctly unhappy ending—between the two movies, only two people survive—yet, at the end, and despite everyone’s best efforts, there is the implication of hope for Humanity after all.
A high point of both movies are the productions themselves. The sets, casts and trappings of both worlds are exquisite to behold. Boyle and Bong also applied some wonderfully inventive photographic techniques to filming both the dangers of space in solar orbit, and the hazards of existence on a moving train on a snow-covered world. They are so beautifully filmed that it is almost easy to ignore the fact that the story and science of both are just batshit-nuts.
And it’s so ironic that, knowing this, I put both of these movies on my list of superior science fiction films a few months back. Yes, I’ve tried to advocate the serious use of real science and believable technology in SF… and neither of these movies, I’m sorry to say, live up to that standard. But in both cases, it’s the humanistic concepts they represent, rather than the veracity of the science depicted, that makes these better movies than many on the Rolling Stone list.
In short, for the concepts depicted, and the quality of the productions, I recommend both movies… even though I have to simultaneously recommend that you check your physics textbooks at the door when you watch them.