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Credit: Magnolia Pictures

How Melancholia and Sunshine take an eyes wide open approach to the end of the world

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Apr 10, 2020

An unstoppable asteroid is a common disaster movie scenario that depicts an astronomical event threatening the existence of the Earth. Both released in 1998, Armageddon and Deep Impact are the two most obvious examples; however, there have been others, including 1950s Italian sci-fi The Day the Sky Exploded and the more recent Seeking a Friend at the End of the World (2012). However, small (on a relative scale) bits of space rock on a collision course are not the only astronomical danger portrayed in science fiction.

In the more cerebral Melancholia (2011), a previously unidentified rogue planet is perilous to the Earth's orbit, and some predict it will actually smash into the globe. Hidden by the sun until recently, the discovery of the planet Melancholia is met with awe and terror. Meanwhile, the sun is causing world-ending issues in director Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007), but instead of an impact event, the death of this star will kill all life on the planet. The mission at hand is to create another star within the sun, therefore ending the solar winter. In the case of Melancholia and Sunshine, the event at the heart of the story is met with a pendulum swing in actions and emotion: pragmatism and wonder, hope and fear, acceptance and denial.

Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures 

Approaching these events with their eyes open — including addressing the consequences of our actions — is one approach, but there is also a heavy dose of avoidance. Conversations about mortality are both implied and explicit, a subtext that haunts the frame even when it isn't spoken aloud. Following a small ensemble rather than tracking characters across the globe — as the disaster genre is prone to do — creates intimacy, but these movies can still also be read as a wider allegory depicting climate change. While the sun dying and a rogue planet are not the result of human interference, how these problems are dealt with reflects the wide-ranging reactions to environmental issues.

The first half of Melancholia has a foreboding undertone, which clashes with the wedding backdrop. There is a sense that something bad is around the corner, which is bolstered by the disappearance of the Antares star in the sky at the end of Justine's (Kirsten Dunst) reception. Weddings are meant to be a joyous occasion, but as the party continues, Justine's mood becomes increasingly despondent. Her mental health is seemingly tied to the unforeseen astronomical event. A Cassandra-like figure, her equilibrium is in tune with the environment. Acting out impulsively, she sleeps with a new colleague while her husband is inside the venue, dramatically quits her job, and ends up quietly calling the whole thing off as her brother-in-law bitches about how much money he spent on the bash. In the second part — which focuses on her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine's depression is so acute she physically cannot get into a bath.

Credit: Magnolia Pictures 

Claire's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) is an astrology buff who flexes his knowledge at every opportunity. He is super dismissive of his wife's anxiety when she notes that some are saying this rogue planet could hit the Earth. Captain Mansplain refers to the articles Claire has been reading online as having been written by "prophets of doom." His attempt to reassure her is weakened by his chastising tone when he cites other scientist experts who believe the planet will simply fly by.

As Melancholia approaches, Justine’s mood improves drastically. Her depressive fog has abated in time for this miraculous event, but her clarity is connected to her insight regarding the fate of the world. In a frank conversation with her sister, she tells her, "The Earth is evil, we don't need to grieve for it" before following up with an emphatic argument regarding her preternatural foresight. "That I know things. And when I say we're alone, we're alone. Life is only on Earth, and not for long."

Claire is stuck between her husband's arrogance and her sister's nihilism, or rather John's inability to consider the fallibility of man and Claire's acceptance that their fate is sealed. Her son makes a basic (but effective) device that reveals when Melancholia is moving away, but it also reveals when it swings back on itself (as the prophets of doom suggested it would). Rather than tell his family how wrong he was, John dies by suicide in the stables.

Unlike Armageddon, there are no deep-core drillers to send into space to save the day. But to soften the blow for her young nephew, Justine constructs a "magic cave" for them to experience the end of the world together.

Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures 

Prophets and notions of faith take on a scarier visage in Sunshine, which follows the Icarus II mission to drop a nuclear payload into the sun to create another star. The Icarus I never completed its task — it is probably a bad idea to name your ship after a Greek myth that ends in a failed flight. Mental health is a major concern on a voyage of this length and magnitude, which puts all hope of human existence on the eight-person crew. Physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) is pragmatic and claims he has not had dreams of burning on the surface of the sun — even though we see flashes of his fiery visions. Cassie (Rose Byrne) is more up-front about the sun nightmare that haunts her. "Only dream I ever have," she tells Capa.

The mood of the crew deteriorates as the film progresses. A fraught chain reaction of events leads to multiple deaths and a shortage in oxygen supplies, and there is a very real possibility they won't make it to their target. Machismo, arrogance, delusion, and paranoia all penetrate the walls of this spacecraft, but ultimately sacrifices are made to ensure they save mankind. Mace's (Chris Evans) hubris ends up playing an important role when he endures an incredibly painful death to save the mission. His arrogance is an issue early in the film, which sees him wrestle with Capa, but when it counts, his pragmatic approach to the mission and his belief in his colleague's vital role as physicist becomes a buffer when others falter.

Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures 

The solution to the problem in Sunshine is clear; however, much like Icarus in the Greek myth, human fallibility is a burden and an obstacle to be surmounted. Capa and Cassie know what needs to be done as they stare their mortality in the face. Earlier, Searle (Cliff Curtis), the ship's psychological officer, talks about the theoretical effectiveness of the payload mission, as they have no idea whether it will actually work, but belief that it will is necessary. Before Searle sacrifices himself for the mission, he gives the physicist an important piece of advice: "Hey Capa, we're only stardust." We all return to the same form as each other, and in the grand scheme the loss of one life is nothing in comparison to the fate of the world.

In Melancholia it is too late to reverse the fate of the Earth, and it only becomes clear we are doomed as this blue planet comes hurtling to the surface. The prognosis is less bleak in Sunshine, as there is an option to reverse the cataclysmic effect of the dying sun, but only a limited time frame in which the action can be taken. The planet can be saved as long as we open our eyes to the danger it is in. Humanity and this place we call home are worth fighting for, but we need to do it sooner rather than later. A magic cave is a nice story, but those "walls" won't protect us from what is to come.

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