22 June 2014

The (pseudo) science of the film "Sunshine"

Recently I've been bemoaning the fact that sci-fi horror is one of the most woefully underexploited genres in Hollywood. We can easily count the classics in the genre on one hand — Alien/s, The Thing, The Fly, maybe even 2001 if you think HAL9000 is a scary sonofabitch. There are lots of mediocre to good-but-not-great sci-fi horror flicks — Pitch Black, Pandorum, Mimic, Event Horizon...

The only big-budget film in the genre I can think of is the highly divisive Prometheus (personally, I concur with Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper). I suppose Gravity, which was obviously amazing, could fit in there too — although it seems to fall more under pure 'suspense' than horror. There have been some lower budget sci-fi horror flicks, like the pretty-decent Europa Report and the rather middling Last Days on Mars, but really I have a hard time thinking of outstanding, classic entries in the genre.

In any case, I decided to add Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyl, to the list. I'd heard some good things about it (it's got a high score on Rotten Tomatoes), and the cast is really great — Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy (Scarecrow from the Nolan Batman films), and even the Asian guy who had a bit part in Prometheus as one of the co-pilots.

Now, here's the thing about science fiction: I'm totally, 100% okay with throwing science out the window for dramatic effect... to a point. I mean, practically every sci-fi movie has artificial gravity, which is probably impossible the way it's generally depicted. But filming actors floating around is really costly and difficult and probably not integral to the storytelling. Plus, as Arthur C. Clark said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". I wasn't even bothered all that much by something as obviously dumb as the butchering of genetics in Prometheus, because the whole "Their DNA is the same as ours!" trope was just a narrative device to drive home the premise and not integral to the plot (though it certainly could have been handled more creatively and accurately).

But in the case of Sunshine, the science was butchered so badly that it actually affected my suspension of disbelief. Some of it goes back to long-overused tropes, like freezing almost immediately when you're exposed to the vacuum of space, or a big whooshing decompression that sucks everyone into space. My good friend and comrade in blog, the mighty Tristan Vick, remarked that he loved Sunshine and told me it was "the most scientifically accurate movie I've ever seen". So without further ado, I'm going to list some of the ways in which Sunshine totally butchers science into a bloody mess of absurdity. If you haven't seen the movie, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

First, the entire premise is both impossible and implausible:

  • The actual sun will not 'die' for trillions of years. In about 5 billion years, it'll turn into a red giant, and a billion or so years later, a white dwarf. It'll then slowly dissipate heat for trillions of years. 
  • The producers knew this, so they consulted with handsome physicist Brian Cox who mentions a purely theoretical particle called a Q-Ball that could theoretically interact with a star and tear it up, but qualifies it by saying our star is too small for this theoretical interaction with theoretical particles. But, the reason for the death of the sun is never mentioned in the movie. 
  • In the movie, as the sun is 'dying' it gets dimmer and the Earth gets colder. In reality, as the sun runs out of hydrogen it will burn hotter and brighter, eventually turning Earth into a sweltering, uninhabitable wasteland. 
  • If the sun were running out of hydrogen and thus 'dying', you could not ignite it with a bomb — especially a small one (the bomb is "the size of Manhattan" in the film, which needless to say is pretty miniscule compared to the size of the sun). Of course that assumes you could actually get a bomb to the sun, which in addition to the problem of accelerating an object of that size, you run into a bigger problem when you get to the sun:
  • Any hard material would have melted long before it got to the center of the sun. The coronosphere is over 10,000° F, which is roughly four times hotter than the melting point of uranium. The velocity of the payload would of course just increase the heat, so any material we could make on Earth would burn up well before it reached the coronosphere, much less get to the center of the sun.  
  • Lastly, it's not clear why NASA would send people on this kind of mission at all, since human error is what screws it all up and it's so risky anyway. Plus, it's not even that complicated — fly toward the sun and released a payload. It's a mathematical trajectory and sequence, and if humanity was facing its demise they wouldn't waste resources on life support redundancies. But I guess a movie about a giant probe wouldn't be as exciting.

But, okay. Despite all of that, I'm totally willing to entertain my suspension of disbelief for the sake of the drama. It's a ridiculous, impossible premise, but sci-fi movies often are. But as the film progresses, real science is tossed out the window at every turn, often just for the sake of rehashing tired old cliches about the horror of space:

  • In one scene, a few of the astronauts have to decompress an airlock and shoot 20 meters through space to another airlock — but only one of them has a suit. When the airlock is blown, they're sucked out in a big whoosh. This would not happen. If a spaceship decompressed, the force of decompression might suck out some loose objects, but you'd just sit there and die of vacuum exposure. This is especially true in an airlock, which doesn't contain nearly enough air to create much of any force. This is similar to the old movie trope of explosive decompression on a plane, where the side blows open and everyone gets sucked out. In reality, the plane would decompress virtually instantly and people would sit there and have a few moments to put on their oxygen masks. 
  • After Chris Evans' character is exposed to the vacuum of space and survives, he just goes on with the suspenseful progression of the film. In reality he'd need to spend time in a barometric chamber. He'd have joint pain and move slowly. And he'd have horrible burns from cosmic radiation.
  • The third character gets knocked off course and into space before he can get to the airlock, and he freezes within moments. But if you were exposed to the vacuum of space, you wouldn't freeze except for a bit on your eyes and in your mouth, but probably not until after you're unconscious. It'd take a couple of minutes to die of asphyxiation even after you passed out, but even though it's cold, the low-pressure environment acts as an insulator so there's nothing to transfer heat away from your body except for radiation, which takes a long time.  The worst thing about a brief vacuum exposure in space is being exposed to cosmic radiation, which would result in a really nasty sunburn.  
  • A big part of the suspense in the film relates to them not being able to communicate with Earth because of a "dead zone" around Mercury. In real life, NASA had no problem getting a signal back from the Mariner 10, which observed Mercury in 1975.

By the time this was all happening in the movie, I was getting a bit annoyed. Despite the absurd premise, the setup was really good. It's well-acted and the suspense builds appropriately slowly, including a great scene in which they're trying to repair the giant shield on the front of the ship. But when the movie started resorting to old scientifically bogus contrivances, it started to lose me.

Then, in the third act, the movie goes more into the realm of pure horror and pure absurdity when the captain of the previous mission, somehow still alive after seven years alone, wreaks havoc on the ship and crew. And still more bogosity ensues:
  • Nobody could survive for seven years with second- or third-degree burns all over their body without intensive medical care. The surviving captain is portrayed not only as having burns all over his body, but apparently having super strength, a horrifying ghostly deep voice, and cannot be seen clearly for reasons that are unexplained. The effect is without a doubt very cool and it works from a dramatic standpoint, but it's like Danny Boyl couldn't decide whether to make the film a believable science fiction movie or a supernatural horror flick. It casts shades of Event Horizon, but at least that movie had a clear explanation for why shit was getting scary.
  • Assuming that somehow, we could magically get a Manhattan-sized device, with a giant bomb, inside the center of the sun — which, it turns out, has both gravity and a life support system inside! — time and space would not warp in the center of the sun, as the film depicts. Our sun is not remotely massive enough. Besides, if the sun could exert black-hole-like effects, the first would be "spaghettification", where you'd get stretched longer and thinner as you moved toward the center.
  • The closing scene depicts Capa, played by Cillian Murphy, watching the surface of the sun close in on him and then stand still, beautifully and magically, as time seems to freeze. Just.... no. It's a beautiful, dramatic scene, but it's pure fantasy. Even if we could travel to the center of a black hole where the laws of general relativity break down, we'd likely just be a jumbled mess of particles. 
  • Lastly, the film depicts the ships as all having artificial gravity. Generally, I'm fine with that in futuristic sci-fi films. But they made such an effort to keep some parts believable — like having a giant terrarium in the ship to grow their own food and (presumably) recycle carbon dioxide — that I think the film would have been more effective if it had been more consistent. 

So, maybe this all seems like goofy nitpicking. The movie's obviously not meant to be a realistic science fiction movie. The producers thought the premise sounded cool, and it's about the human drama and the unknowns of space more than anything. But personally, despite the movie being well-shot with great cinematography and well-written with a strong cast, the combination of bad science, overused space-death tropes and a mysteriously magical bad guy (who, of course, makes the unexplained scary return to try and thwart the mission at the last moments) keeps it out of my list of sci-fi favorites. I give it a B-. 

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