Depending on the film or those involved in its creation, commentaries can either be truncated courses in filmmaking or shallow stories about what the actors did in their downtime on the shoot. Guillermo del Toro and Pedro Almodovar both give great, really educational commentaries, and Roger Ebert‘s infectious love for cinema makes his commentaries on classic films like Casablanca or Citizen Kane irresistable. However, commentaries involving “outsiders,” folks other than directors, editors, or actors, offer an interesting perspective as well. Such is the case with an optional commentary track on the new science fiction DVD, Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle. Along with the usual director’s commentary, the DVD includes an additional track by Dr. Brian Cox, a physicist from the University of Manchester and chief science advisor for the film. Not being a filmmaker or a professional critic, Dr. Cox goes a little overboard with his positive assessment of what is an average to good science fiction film (it had a relatively short theatrical release in early 2007), yet if you are at all interested in the relationship between science and religion, or science in and of iself, you will find fewer more interesting commentaries than this one. Before I engage Dr. Cox’s commentary, a brief synopsis of the film is in order. In the future, Earth’s existence is in peril not, as you would expect, from warring forces or global warming, but quite the opposite. The sun is dying, plunging Earth into a nuclear winter. A team of scientists, physicists, and a therapist (clergy are notably absent) journey to the sun with a gigantic nuclear weapon in an attempt to reignite Earth’s closest star. As with most undertakings, they encounter difficulties both within and without their spacecraft, especially when they reach the remains of a previous, unsuccessful mission. The rest you can see for yourself so I won’t spoil the ending.
More entertaining than the film however, is Dr. Cox’s commentary. After introducing himself and his work, he reassures us that we need not worry about the sun’s demise and that this is simply science fiction. It would take billions of years for the sun to extinguish. Whew! Yet he then begins his discussion of how we could or would undertake such a mission of need be! The factual information that he provides from scientific research is simply staggering, and the theoretical possibilities truly imaginative. I doubt anyone has made particle physics and astronomy sound so…well…cool.
Throughout the film, characters make generic references to the Divine (“Oh my God!” or “Dear God!”), and later in the film, the idea of God, an active being that speaks to and influences certain characters, begins to play a bigger role. Dr. Cox rejects these ideas outright, clearly influenced by and influencing the ever-present schism between science and religion. He simply admits disbelief rather than engaging in any explanation or discussion, which is of course appropriate in this arena. However, for those who believe in God and are yet “believers” in science as well, his comments offer much food for thought. I want to pull out one major point for discussion.
As Dr. Cox’s discussion of physicists and scientists’ research progresses, he ultimately claims that we live in a meaningless world. Our world and the universe in which it exists and the universes beyond this one are all simply without meaning. We exist for a time, everything exists for a time, and in time, all will cease to exist. Whether this will give rise to new life forms or universes, he does not say. For an interesting, if meaningless, look at our (humans’) insignificance on Earth, watch a re-run of the History Channel’s Life After People which imagines the quick (relatively) decomposition of all humanity has ever created once we are no longer here to sustain it.
Yet Dr. Cox offers a contradictory perception throughout his commentary. He claims that as sicentists delve deeper into their research, they begin to speak of their findings in aesthetical terms such as beauty. Indeed, Dr. Cox responds to many scenes in the film as beautiful or breathtaking. While his enthusiasm for the film is a bit strong, you get the sense that he is not just commenting on the film itself but on the nature that it depicts. He is also calling a supposedly meaningless human being’s creation (the film) beautiful. For me, this is where theologians and people of faith can enter into the discussion.
Beauty is the furthest thing from a scientific term and belongs to the artistic and, I would say theological, realms. Beauty implies meaning or value and its subjective nature allows for myriad explanations of beauty, not one or two scientifically accepted ones. If we live in a meaningless world, then why speak of it at all in terms loaded with meaning and value. The story of the film betrays Dr. Cox’s commentary as well. One group of astronauts and scientists have already given their lives to reignite the sun and save the planet. A second team is surely putting their lives in danger. Why would humans do this if they are meaningless or the world in which they live has no meaning?
In a way, I can see where Dr. Cox is going with such an argument. In fact, humans often act as if all this has no meaning at all. We tear apart one another and the earth with wars, senseless violence, greed, and pollution, yet as part of this world and this universe, we share in its value and meaning. I do not believe that humans are the source of meaning for the universe. As a person of faith, I believe the universe has intrinsic value simply by virtue of its existence. The fact that there is being rather than non-being, in my mind, implies meaning. So why save a planet, in the film or in reality, that is not worth saving?
Again, Dr. Cox’s commentary makes for a surprisingly entertaining two hour discussion of all things scientific. For more information on the relationship between science and theology/religion, visit the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences.
Sunshine (107 mins) is rated R for language and violent content and is available on DVD.