Friday, 29 April 2011

Source Code: it's possible Duncan Jones only has one theme

I'm quite a fan of Duncan Jones' deceptively simple SF debut Moon, but as I was watching his bigger budget follow up Source Code, I found myself preoccupied with the way in which the second film tracks the themes of the first one. I gather that the internet is full of complaints about how Source Code doesn't make a lick of sense, all of which complaints presumably summarise down to "How the hell can one random guy picked out of the rubble have detailed memories of everything else in a whole commuter train?" To all of which I say, for goodness sakes, biatches; this is the conceit we have to accept for the movie to work. Worry about why a lone terrorist would have a dirty nuclear bomb and take a moment to blow a commuter train up beforehand. THAT's silly.

But I wasn't losing too much fretting time over that kind of thing. Expecting Hollywood thrillers to make sense is not a good use of resources at the best of times, but once you make the jump to a thriller with a science fiction premise; forget logic. As I say, what interested me was all the echoes to Moon.

In Source Code, the action is focused on one actor, who's stuck either in a train, or in a cramped capsule. He's only got one person he can really talk to, and even that conversation is through a computer interface. He's being systematically deceived about his real situation and the people controlling him don't really care whether he lives or dies as long as they get what they want. He spends the first half of the movie figuring out his predicament, and the second half finding a way to get out of it, eventually pulling off an unlikely happy ending which allows him to escape from his predicament and blow the lid off the company which put him into it.

In Moon, the action is focused on one actor, stuck in a single location with no company except for a computer. He's been systematically deceived about his real situation and the people controlling him don't care... You can see where I'm going here, I hope. The actual plots are very different, but the underlying preoccupations are strikingly different. In Moon, Sam Rockwell is the lone minder of an automated moon mining facility who gradually realises that his employers have decided that it's cheaper just to leave him there rather than bother with the trouble and expense of bringing him back. If you actually think about the way the employers have decided to implement their cold blooded scheme, it doesn't make a lick of sense either in money or physics terms, but the movie actually works very well. In Source Code, Jake Gyllenhall is an army officer who's been told by his commanders that he's been implanted with the fragmentary memories of a bombing victim in order to try to figure out how the bombing happened. He gradually realises that the commanders are up to something a good deal more coldblooded than that. The underlying notion that you could somehow get usable results by implanting the last eight minutes of a dead man's life into someone else's mind is ridiculous, but if you roll with that, the rest of the movie works.

Like Moon, the film lives and dies on the performances, and just like in Moon, Jones was careful to get good actors. Gyllenhall is in pretty much every scene and has to do an awful lot of hard work, but he just about carries it all off. Michelle Monaghan, an actress who I've actually seen steal a scene without either dialogue or movement (in Gone Baby Gone) isn't given as much to do as she's capable of, but is consistently solid as the most important train passenger. However, the movie lives and dies on the interplay between Vera Farmiga, as the army controller, and Gyllenhall. Farmiga is an actress who does smart women very well, and can get away with a lot in underplaying scenes. That knack for underplaying things works out very well in her scenes with Gyllenhall, where Gyllenhall is getting more and more hysterical about the plight he's in, and Farmiga really sells the idea of a professional maintaining a precarious calm over increasing agitation. That realistic interplay just about maintains the in-world credibility of the ridiculous plot.

There's a lot of fun to be had, all the same. Gyllenhall gets a lot of funny interactions with the other train passengers, and there's a nice relaxed vibe to his connection with Michelle Monaghan. As he keeps having the relive the same eight minutes in dozens of different ways, he gets more and more assured and casual about things, and there's a lot of humour in the way he maintains focus on talking to Monaghan or saving the world while mechanically dealing with all other things which he's done dozens of times before. By the time the film reaches a climax, we're rooting for his improbable victory over his predicament, and the unlikely happy ending just feels warm and satisfying rather than glib.

Still, I do wonder. What will Jones' next film be about?

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