Source Code (Duncan Jones 2011) – Blu-ray and DVD release
Duncan Jones – aka David Bowie Jr and @ManMadeMoon – continues to impress with his second movie, released on Monday 15th August on Blu-ray and DVD.
(Duncan Jones, US, 2010)
Sci-fi with a beating heart – an existential reverie about choice and pre-destination that favours romance and character over action-movie thrills
It didn’t take waggish bloggers long to peg Source Code – a film of parallel realities and repeated activities – as Inception meets Groundhog Day. But it’s just as pertinent to label it as 12 Monkeys meets Quantum Leap, or North By Northwest meets Memento. This isn’t unusual, of course. The more out-there the concept (and ‘hacking into a dead man’s soul’ is sky-high in terms of its WTF? factor) the handier those reference points are to marketing it to sceptical audiences. But here, familiarity only serves to disorientate us from the truth.
Because there’s yet another pitch that makes far more sense of Source Code’s quiet, heart-felt intelligence. Let’s call it: Moon on Earth. Duncan Jones’ second film is so claustrophobic it makes his lunar debut look like a David Lean epic. Here, Jake Gyllenhaal is trapped in a diving bell-style chamber, and even when he gets to extend his wings as a butterfly, it’s for a mere eight minutes on a speeding train – before a bomb rips it apart. Just as Moon wove an entire world and life from a couple of Sam Rockwells and Kevin Spacey’s voice, so this film creates an action thriller in miniature. Sure, it has stunts, violence, twists and explosions (well, the same explosion over and over again…), but really it’s a chamber piece, and Jones handles his set-pieces with an almost nonchalant efficiency so he can better devote his energies to the characters.
Geoff Ryman once wrote an Internet novel called 653, imagining the inner lives of passengers on a crowded Tube train, and allowing you to dart from one viewpoint to another, as each passenger wonders what his neighbours are thinking. The titular technology of Source Code is a bit like the experience of reading that. Gyllenhaal’s Colter Stevens is plonked into the body of one passenger, and then has to detect the bomber by observation, rifling through people’s bags, or via more direct confrontation. But no sooner does he start on one suspect than he get distracted by another guy walking past… and then there’s the pretty woman sitting opposite, with whom he might be able to start a romance if it wasn’t for the fact she’s already dead.
This is cinema with the logic of a Choose Your Own Adventure, or a video game… but where it scores highly is in the downtime between recon missions. While he’s waiting for the software to reboot, Gyllenhall’s tete-a-tetes with Vera Farmiga’s business-like mentor and Jeffrey Wright’s hammy boffin are a cross between a reading group and psychotherapy – a place to go and make sense of what he’s seen and done, and plot his next move. But as anybody who’s ever daydreamed will know, idle reflection isn’t the best time to make life-or-death decisions. The more they want him to focus on the matter at hand, the longer he obsesses over more personal affairs: his family relationships, or his own life…and then there’s that pretty woman on the train.
And, with it, a supposedly high-concept thriller shakes off its shackles. This is a genre traditionally designed to move fast so we don’t notice how ludicrous it is. Source Code deliberately slows down to take stock of all the other stuff – for starters, it’s a film interested in people who, let’s be honest, would be anonymous extras in any other film. So forget the inexorable, fatalistic drive of a Memento, or a 12 Monkeys. The threat of nuclear extinction is weirdly incidental here, replaced with a fundamental sweetness and optimism here that justifies those comparisons with Groundhog Day, and Quantum Leap, and – yes – Moon. Two films in, Duncan Jones is becoming the nice guy of sci-fi, a man who makes smaller films than his peers yet sees much, much further.