A review of Source Code – and Director Duncan Jones’ previous film, Moon – for an HR-related blog could probably do one of two things: a) encourage you to go and see one, and possibly two, excellent films, or b) make a point about nepotism. As the son of David Bowie, that latter is an issue that Jones has no doubt been forced to address throughout his life. In an interview with Time Out in 2009, he acknowledged the theme but in words that made it clear that being the son of someone famous is not necessarily a free silver spoon:
Expectations are so much higher. You don’t have to measure up, you have to measure beyond…”
It’s to his credit that he doesn’t trade on the most immediately obvious advantage he might wield (and seemingly remains acutely conscious that others will choose to do so for him, whether he likes it or not), but it’s to his much greater credit that he’s now given us two exceptional films to enjoy. If you missed it, Moon (now out on DVD) was a quirky sci-fi film set on the moon in an undated future, where LUNAR employee Sam Bell is nearing the end of his three year stint with only a talking robot for companionship. That doesn’t sound any more promising as a scenario for the audience than for the character, yet Jones produced something moving and affecting from the situation – and from a small budget that saw model-making replace the lavish CGI we’re accustomed to – that, like the follow-up, poses some interesting questions about what it means to be human.
It’s difficult to say more without introducing major spoilers into a review, but let’s say anyone who didn’t come away from it feeling distinctly chilled about one aspect of the future of employee relations either has a heart of stone or a head stuck too far in their popcorn bag. There was also a telling line in Roger Ebert’s review for the Chicago Sun-Times about how the film addressed:
the interface between humans and alien intelligence of one kind or other, including digital”
There are monsters in Moon, but that doesn’t mean they’re from a different carbon-based species.
Source Code (unlike Moon, not written by Jones) is a rather different kettle of conundrums. Where Moon unravelled – like its main character – slowly, as dark realisations crept up on both protagonist and audience, Source Code thunders past at immense speed. Although what is actually happening once more gets explained in incremental steps, it’s a rollercoaster ride between one jigsaw piece and the next. Where Moon was a thriller in the psychological sense, Source Code is a thriller in a much more literal way. There are valid criticisms – Ebert’s reaction this time was “An ingenious thriller that comes billed as science fiction, although its science is preposterous” – but this is as much something to watch while turning a blind-eye to the scientific plot holes as an extended, mega budget episode of Doctor Who (the comparison is intended as praise, by the way).
If Moon sounds too philosophical for your tastes (although it has plenty of moments of great humour), part of the cleverness of Source Code is that it can appeal at many levels. The wham-bang action thriller viewer can watch a high-paced movie with explosions a plenty; the more romantic can rest assured that the guy does indeed get the girl, and fans of sci-fi tv series Quantum Leap, Alfred Hitchcock and Chesney Hawkes can all appreciate little references and in-jokes. Although Jones speaks glowingly on Christopher Nolan’s recent blockbuster, Inception, in interviews, having seen both films recently, my preference would be for Source Code.
As others have commented, both Moon and Source Code also tap into 70s sci-fi, often seen as something of a golden age for the genre. This was an era when our relationship with machines and our own technologies was questioned probingly. Remember 2001: A Space Odyssey? Jones obviously does. The human need for human connection, rather than just reliable reliable comms., is an element in both films. Sam needs the connection with his wife and daughter at an emotional level, a level that the system designing and implementing the clones cannot deal with.
I noticed a passage in another 70s sci-fi gem – in this case a novel – that I was reading, that struck a similarly humanist yet forlorn note: Marya Mannes’ They. Mannes, a former Vogue editor, was also a satirist and social critic: there’s a Time review of They still online. Here’s an extract:
A few of us still had the family doctors who knew about people as well as bodies, who would pay housecalls when the urgency of our voices dictated the need, who could – just because they knew us so well – relate our ailments in many cases to conditions of mind and heart which affect this or that organ, lowered the resistance against this or that infection.
But these mentors were fast disappearing in the wake of miraculous machines and the specialists who could program them and read their language. These devices spared the doctors the tedium and time drain of listening to their patients, for the machines could tell them in five minutes or less what took the people fifteen.”
Source Code’s final reel (another concept that is long gone) makes a not-too-dissimilar point in the interaction as the protagonist and a functionary at the controlling technological centre make a human bond that the ‘rules’ forbid: the system understands efficiency, but not compassion – or the motivations of its elements. This is, as critics have commented, ‘hard sci-fi’: sci-fi about something more than escapism and a eyeball jolted blast of effects.
Inception, for example, struck me as a very clever idea that fell prey to a combination of a lavish effects budget and a commercial imperative to make ‘an action movie: like The Matrix, it seemed to me like an ingenous 30 minutes followed by an SFX pile-up and a very fancy shoot-em-up. Source Code goes a little lighter on the TNT – if not the pace – and remains intelligent throughout, although it chooses not to beat its audience round the head with that intelligence. (It’s also over 50 minutes shorter, although that’s not a statement that should be read as implying it gives less value-for-money as a night out in the multiplex goes.)
But if you’re the kind of reader that enjoys a film for the reflection on its broader themes as you leave the multiplex, Source Code also won’t disappoint. If Moon’s lingering impression on the future of relationships between employer and employee was dark, Source Code’s is just as bleak – although it leaves the door open to greater ambiguity. Apparently, one of Jones’ few changes to the script was to amend the original ‘happy ending’: judging by the interviews – you’ll have to Google them yourself – the ethical dilemma it leaves hanging was his deliberate addition, and it injects a note of humanity into a scenario based on technology, logic and reason.
Like all good sci-fi, both Jones’ films give us food for thought about not just the future in general, but the future of human kind. It probably doesn’t affect anyone else’s enjoyment if I’m the only viewer reflecting that HR – and layers of organisational management – never seems to come out of sci-fi in too flattering a light, but if you appreciate that oysters need grit to make pearls, you might get more out of Source Code than just an exciting night at the cinema.