British filmmaker Duncan Jones — the son of British rock legend David Bowie — made a big splash two years ago with his acclaimed debut feature “Moon” starring Sam Rockwell. A one-man show for the underrated American actor, “Moon” was the rarest of beasts: a smart, thought-provoking sci-fi film with art-house sheen devoid of the deafening bombast and senseless thrills of contemporary American examples of the dumbed-down genre. A thinking-man science fiction “Moon” has been dubbed.
I wasn’t as stimulated by “Moon” as most critics. There was more than one aspect of the film to admire: Rockwell’s powerhouse performance, the sparse visual design, the measured pace and the unpredictable plot turns. The biggest draw of the story for me was Rockwell’s existential conflict: a lone man grappling with the ubiquitous questions of identity, fate and God. The answers to these questions were far less intriguing though and by the third act, I lost empathy with the character, dissatisfied with the conclusion.
Jones’ sophomore effort, “Source Code,” suffers from the same identical problems. A concept-driven film with the DNA of 50s B-films, “Source Code” bites off more than it can chew, proposing neat answers to dense philosophical questions that fail to convince. As a thriller, the film mostly works, delivering sufficient smarts and excitement for mainstream audience. As a thoughtful probing of the same ideas Jones tackled in his first film, “Source Code” disappoints.
The brilliant opening montage sets the mood of the paranoia that doesn’t waver even with the subsequent revelations. Captain Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), an Air Force helicopter pilot, wakes up on a train heading to Chicago. He doesn’t know how he got there or why the pretty, friendly lady (Michelle Monaghan) sitting on the opposite seat is calling him Sean. The train instructor asks him for his ticket, a lady passing by drips her coffee on his shoe. He goes to the lavatory, opens up his wallet and finds an ID of a school teacher. He looks at the mirror and finds a face that is not his own.
He runs back to his seat, gaping randomly at the passengers in desperate attempt to figure out what happened to him. Minutes later, the train blows up. But he doesn’t die.
He wakes up to find himself in a tiny pod, strapped in a seat overlooking a tiny monitor. An officer named Colleen Goodwin (the always formidable Vera Farmiga) provides him with a series of clues to refresh his memory. Stevens, he discovers, is a part of a revolutionary program called the Beleaguered Castle that allows agents with similar physical attributes to the dead to be transported into their bodies for the last eight minutes before their demise.
Stevens cannot save the life of the passengers who already died; the Beleaguered Castle, Goodwin asserts, is not a time capsule. The course of events that had happened in the past cannot be altered. His mission is to find out the culprit behind the explosion by reliving the last eight minutes of Sean’s life in a Groundhog Day-like fashion. The stakes are high; in few hours, the same man will take the lives of two million people if not stopped. Meanwhile, Stevens tries to discover how he got there in the first place, what happened to his comrades in Afghanistan and why Goodwin, and her shadowy, Dr. Strangelove-like superior (Jeffrey Wright) are withholding information about the nature of the program.
“Source Code” starts off as a whodunit murder mystery set in the mistrustful post-9/11 world. Gradually, the science fiction strands takes over the story as further shocking truths about both the program and Stevens are unveiled. The philosophical inquisitions Jones presents organically surface with these revelations, adding a darker hue to the coiling thriller components.
The result, for the first two parts of the movie, is an exhilarating ride enriched by the extra dimensions Jones draws. Although the palate in here is considerably more expansive than “Moon,” Jones continues to challenge himself with the limitations of his setting, confining himself to three fixed locations, two of which bears the same claustrophobic ambiance of Rockwell’s space shuttle.
The tightly woven plot contains its fair share of twists that generate more speculations on different fronts: Is this program real or not? Why can’t Stevens remember signing up for the program? Can alternate reality be manipulated? All these questions are eventually answered, some less convincingly than others.
“Source Code” is a concept-driven film heavy on plot and low on characterization. Instead of laying out back-stories via endless dialogues exchanged in length by the characters, Jones lets their actions speak their personalities, an apt strategy that doesn’t quite work as their actions says little about who these characters really are. An argument could be made that Stevens’ character represents a universal conflict that requires no further details. Problem is, it’s not, and the comparison between Jones and Hitchcock many critics insisted on drawing is somewhat unsound.
On the surface, Stevens appears to be a quintessential Hitchcockian character: an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances. The multiple strands Jones knits allow little room for the characters to fully come to life and thus, all the elements that made Hitchcock’s film so great — the wit, humanism and profound psychology — are absent.
Hitchcock’s movies worked like Agatha Christie’s novels: mysteries with deeply conflicted protagonists implanted in relatable social realities perfectly encompassing the master of suspense’s enduring themes of obsession, voyeurism and social deviation.
“Source Code’s” reality is not as lucid as Hitchcock’s, leaning more towards the worlds of Philip K. Dick without the heightened anguish, cynicism or abstractness. The third act in particular erases any chance for the transformative philosophical experience that defined the latter’s work. Opting for a standard crowd-pleasing Hollywood ending, Jones warps it up with an overly tidy finale that betrays the logic of the story, leaving the audience with a false hope.
Jones — a philosophy graduate student — is an ambitious filmmaker working in a medium that avoids risks. In adapting to the Hollywood demands, Jones has watered down his ideas — personal choice versus fate, the elasticity of time, position of humans in a world run by technology, Locke’s conception of personal identity — presenting them in a shiny package accessible to everyone. The entertainment value ultimately take the upper the hand, reducing Jones’ multifaceted ideas into the kind of pop philosophy found in recent high concept sci-fi films.
Like “Inception” before it, “Source Code” is another proof that intellect and Hollywood do not go hand in hand. Duncan Jones is a talented filmmaker torn between the worlds of ideas and commerce. So far, his desire to create mass entertainments has got the better of him. Only time will tell whether the promise he showed in “Moon” will materialize into something worthwhile.
“Source Code” is showing in theaters across Cairo and Alexandria.