2011 // USA // Duncan Jones // April 9, 2011 // Theatrical Print (AMC Esquire)
Perhaps it's not legitimate to draw conclusions about a filmmaker's preoccupations from just two feature films, but it's hard not to see the sympathies and affinities of director Duncan Jones snapping into focus with his sophomore effort, Source Code. Slicker and squishier than Moon, the director's superlative hard science-fiction tale from 2009, Jones' latest film features the sort of computer-generated effects, wooly-headed science, and contemporary Age of Terror "relevance" that he had previously shunned.
All the same, the two films share a heightened consideration for the loyal worker bees of tomorrow's technocratic order. Unlike most filmmakers who explore such territory, Jones is less troubled by vaguely-defined dehumanization than by the cynical manipulation of our humanity by corporate and governmental authorities, who are as savvy in matters of psychology as they are in genetics and quantum physics. Equally fascinating and more understated is Jones' awareness of the slipperiness of definitions. Is scientific precision even possible when we use words like human, work, copy, causation, simulation, or happiness? Jones keeps such airy concerns grounded by focusing on his protagonist's plight, and thereby avoids (for the most part) science-fiction cinema's propensity for aimless pseudo-intellectual pondering. In particular, both Moon and Source Code exhibit a thematic absorption with the psychological and philosophical dimensions of human contentment and fulfillment, expressed through a tight story rather than grandiose speechifying.
All that said, Source Code absolutely functions first and foremost as a corking good science-fiction thriller, and like most examples of that sub-genre, it hand-waves the viewer's questions away with suspect techno-jargon. Perhaps that's necessary, given that Jones' approach here privileges mortal tension over mystery. Accordingly, the film allots its resources primarily to maintaining the narrative's momentum rather than rigorously establishing setting or mood. This renders the whole enterprise as something a touch more disposable than Moon, as do the performances, which are all smoothly functional except for Jeffrey Wright's agreeably repulsive turn as a scowling, high-handed scientist. I'm loathe to say more about what actually happens in the film, as Source Code is best experienced without any preconceptions regarding its plot. I will say that I'm undecided about the film's conclusion: It's either a ludicrous sop to the audience's alleged need for Happy Endings, or a clever and melancholy U-turn that harmonizes with the rest of the film's yearning for liberation and autonomy.