Monday, June 16, 2008

Extinction level event

Love then screams in my own throat; I am the Jesuve, the filthy parody of the torrid and blinding sun.

Let's consider Danny Boyle's Sunshine as both a characteristically exaggerated response to environmental crisis and an extended visual pun on the term 'Enlightenment.' The genre is easily the one most in tune with my lizard brain, sci-fi horror, combining an alien menace, cosmic scale, and the latent erotics of the military-industrial complex. The premise is suitably elegant: an elite crew of astronauts have to rejuvenate the dying sun by penetrating it with a huge bomb, thus saving the human race from extinction. There's a jingoism to this film that is no less present for its lack of national identification or corresponding ideological threat. It delivers the jingoism of crisis, its stance resolutely 'post-ideological,' a fantasy wherein the reactionary instincts of the nation-state are subordinated to the non-negotiable reality of impending destruction (though memorialized, aesthetically, by the pretty faces of the globalized cast). Humanity can then be reduced to its more cinema-friendly, individual-universal 'weaknesses,' such as lust for power, envy, moral feeling, and susceptibility to the sublime. All of which prove themselves to be liabilities in the crisis situation, if forgivable as sources of dramatic suspense, bathos, etc. A more 'objective,' classier...right, the UK, post-9/11 version of Armageddon.

So do we then say Sunshine belongs with the recent spate of non-U.S. westerns, the parent genre to a certain dominant mode of science fiction? Naught Thought thinks so, in this piece understanding the already post-national history of the European Enlightenment as one with the history of colonial expansion and imperial violence. The obvious touchstone in contemporary philosophy is with Jean-FrançoisLyotard's essay "Can Thought go on without a Body?" where the extinction of the human body is equated with the death of the sun, the absolute limit of thought. Bodiless thought is not without material conditions, but is also not reducible to preserved remains or combinatoric repetitions, the recorded memories which might manifest in, say, a satellite that outlasts the collapse of the solar system. Artificial intelligence, Lyotard claims, cannot be reducible to a program. It must be able to transgress its own limits, must carry some immanent differend, a complex, a libidinal motor for drives, desires, will. It must suffer. Thought, like the marauding cowboy, must have spurs.

Lyotard's philosophical myth can be read as a gnomic restatement of the question of 'late capitalism' -- how does expansion continue in a post-ontological (post-national) universe? More or less rhetorical, its function is to reinforce the truth of its presuppositions. Post-American westerns and western-infused sci-fi serve as good popular counterparts: anti-heroes slay evildoers in spectacular fashion despite existential ennui. But the intrusion of horror complicates things somewhat. The inversion of the western, horror consists of variations on home invasion rather than the quest. Its villains tend toward the abstract. Like obvious influences 2001, Solaris, and Alien, Sunshine's setting is a 'haunted house in space,' a seemingly familiar structure infected by its vast, unfamiliar outside.

Though the sun's five billion years premature decrepitude is never explained within the film, on the DVD commentary we're informed that an invisible force of matter gets trapped by the mass of the sun and begins to eat its way out. We're also told that because of our sun's relatively middling mass, this could never actually happen. Despite the realism of the hardware and the performances, then, the film is really closer to a thought experiment with set parameters, one of those 'push the fatty or pull the lever' things, than to traditional 'speculative fiction.' And unlike conventional horror there is little mystery even for the characters -- the premise is, not exactly established, but asserted beforehand: "If the sun dies, so do we." Lyotard's question is answered with a simple "no."

Aesthetically Sunshine is wonderful when the sun is front and center -- CGI actually works in space -- and enjoyable in that modern, overbearing way when its not. Though like many movies these days it demands you think it intelligent for quoting the 1970s, and in the end a third-act slide into Event Horizon territory ruins all hope for respectability. After a series of moral dilemmas where the crew makes increasingly irrational blunders deviating from 'the mission' (trying to save the crew of the previous vessel is the first fateful misstep), they find themselves stalked by a crazy speechifying Romantic villain, in the Kurtz/Pinhead vein:

I am Pinbacker, Commander of the Icarus One. We have abandoned our mission. Our star is dying. All our science. All our hopes, our... our dreams, are foolish! In the face of this, we are dust, nothing more. Unto this dust, we return. When he chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God.

Pinbacker's God-given task is to 'enjoy,' once and for all, the limit that the crew is determined to transgress. This limit, the border between the human world tamed by Enlightenment reason and its conditional beyond, is transcendentalized, the products of the former -- organized life, technoscience, the 'modern world' -- understood as a gnostic veneer over the Truth. After all, death, the horizon of experience, makes life itself intrinsically unknowable regardless of what form it takes. "Resembles Life what once was held of Light, / Too ample in itself for human sight?" But the significance of the 'beyond's' effect on the 'here' is reversible: plenitude or negation of meaning. In Lyotard's understanding, if thought dies with the sun, then "everything is dead already." Pinbacker, on the other hand, aims to preserve the dialectic of human and inhuman knowledge by halting its progress, thus sacrificing the human species in exchange for an eternal moment of personal transcendence.

Pinbacker's wish for 'totalitarian' transcendence is countered by the moments of selfless, hopeful transcendence experienced by (some members of) the heroic crew. A moral lesson: being obliterated by the sun while saving people is just as awesome as being obliterated by the sun while exterminating them. Quite apart from the romance of Enlightenment, the film's obscure object of desire, is the persistence of a certain ethical code, staged here as logical responses to objective facts. If the crew had stuck to the mission parameters (if they hadn't been swayed by moral sentiment to try and save the previous crew) they would have all survived. We are reminded over and over again that 'transcendence,' a category which seems to encompass more and more each day, is theft, from man and reason. A delusion, a drug trip, a private spectacle. A luxury. The last shot is the homestead on Earth, saved by what they will never know. In a time of certain crisis, an elect is permitted to live like heroes so that we don't have to. For us the sensible thing is to follow orders. 'They' will never know, but we will, all for the price of a ticket. Certain crisis. Would extinction matter if there were no one there to enjoy it?