Plot spoilers below!
It’s become almost ubiquitous to compare Duncan Jones’ new SF-style thriller to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ (as reviewed here). And points of comparison there are, though perhaps no more than to the lesser-cited ‘Twelve Monkeys’. But no small part of the reason for this may be the place the film occupies in the director’s career. Nolan had started on much more cerebral films like ‘Memento’ and ‘Insomnia’, then ‘Inception’ marked a far greater engagement with the mainstream. Similarly, Jones’ debut was the austere and low-key ‘Moon’. (Sort of micro-reviewed here.)
Such films are the cinematic equivalent of the organic sausages and gourmet burgers that populate modern-day pub menus. Once you shelled out for a prime cut of meat, or scrimped and plumped for the processed leftovers. But this apparent contradiction in terms is designed to signify a best-of-both-worlds combination. This is neither some generic fast-food thriller, nor an indigestibly good-for-you art flick. The poster tag “from the visionary director of ‘Moon’” becomes a selling-point, even for those who skipped ‘Moon’ because they thought it too short of explosions... probably especially for them. It’s a sign they’ve got a fully-fledged gourmet chef in to flip those burgers.
Of course there’s nothing automatically wrong about this, and indeed man does not live by Tarkovsky alone. But there has to be something genuinely gourmet to the burger, or else we’re sending it back to the kitchen.
And indeed, there are points of comparison to both ‘Inception’ and ‘Moon’. All three offer variants on the same central paradox, perhaps exemplified here the most neatly of all. Our hero, Captain Colter Stevens, is trapped inside a cannister, only able to talk to the girl (Captain Colleen Goodwin) through a monitor screen. (And even she is not necessarily to be trusted.) The implication is that between us falls the shadow. Yet at the same time the self is violable, the ‘besieged castle’ of the mission’s monicker. While it is hard to reach out to the person next to you, ‘they’ can get right inside your head. The film’s landscape overlaps with ‘Inception’ to the point of becoming interchangeable – shiny city blocks like architects drawings come to life, swooping bullet trains, offices built almost entirely out of shiny glass yet devoid of windows. The base’s webcam is so repeatedly reiterated it must be onscreen more than some of the characters.
It certainly has an ingenious premise, which makes you wish we knew less about movies upfront these days and could encounter it at the same time as Stevens. (Click here if you really don’t know it and want to.) At this point the film it doesn’t seem to resemble is ‘Groundhog Day.’ There the premise was almost capital-B Buddhist, about leaving the wheel, about living your life over until you had learnt enough to move on. This is more like a video game you get to play over, returning from each ‘death’ until you finally win. The figure in the tank, little more than a wired-up brain, is the game player, motionlessly oblivious to his surroundings, intent only upon the virtual world.
We tend to think of ‘video game movies’ as a derogatory term, shorthand for shoot-‘em-ups, films released only so the video-game tie-in can follow (or quite possible the reverse). I suspect this may work like the infamous accusation of “comic book plotting”, where those who never play video games only notice when their influence is at its most negative and superficial. (For example, I do that.) But, bypassing such paraphernalia and going for the formal qualities of video games, we actually end up in an interesting place.
Though it brandies guns and offers us explosions, these don’t set the tone and the film feels much more of a whodunnit. The thrust is thrown upon the train carriage where the suspects are all lined up - like ‘Murder On the Orient Express’, except with Chicago, bombs and body-swapping replacing Russia, knives and Albert Finney. For that matter, there’s even two whodunnits for your buck. Who the terrorist is on the train, and what’s the secret of Stevens’ origins, the subject being continually eluded at Besieged Castle?
Unfortunately, the two then tend to compete for screen time- and it’s the train which loses out. First we’re told we’re getting a clock-racer; every time our hero reboards the train, time is reset only in the virtual world. Real time goes forwards another eight minutes, while the next terrorist attack is imminent.
The film rather tips its hand when we’re given a montage scene. Earlier events had been more or less in real time, pressing home the clock-ticking motif. Any clue Stevens picks up, he has to do in front of us, nothing offscreen or up the movie’s sleeve. But the montage scene is all about the effect of ceaselessly being sent back upon Stevens, the strangeness combined with the pressure. The bomb on the train is really just a MacGuffin for a psychological study. (Plus our hero’s detection method more-or-less becomes to accuse people at random. Maybe not such a bad method when they will lose all memory of this inside of eight minutes, but hardly the stuff of Sherlock Holmes.)
So it’s not so surprising that when the bomber is finally found, through a combination of luck and montage, he has little of interest to say for himself. There’s a Stars-and-Stripes bombing case and a quick gag about “racial profiling” to suggest the terrorist’s a Bible-bashing Militia man, more Timothy McVeigh than Osama Bin Laden. Is this the Hollywood liberalism so decried by Tea Party types, or did they just figure a suspect in a ‘Team America’ beard would give the game away? Whichever, his stated motives are so perfunctory they’d have been better off left as live mysteries in our minds.
Of course, it may be I simply bet wrongly upon the film’s course. But alas, the film’s chosen direction isn’t any more interesting. Turns out our hero is being used... get that, used... by the Corporation. A revelation rather undermined by being the very thing we’d suspected from the beginning - few films, after all, reveal Corporations to be secretly nice. (While ‘Moon’ had an almost identical plot twist.)
There are attempts to stir up some War On Terror style debate. (What if the people on the train were the people in the Twin Towers, now an expendable asset in a bigger ongoing war?) But this is rather undermined by the panto-villain playing of the base’s boss, Dr. Rutledge. He even has a Blofeld-style sinister accent and disfigurement. In short we get two villains, one characterised only by clichés, and the other not at all.
Abigal Nussbaum is correct to point out that making the bad boss a civilian, and his doubting henchman a military woman, is both cheat and cliché. (Besides, in the real world wouldn’t an oath-bound military officer be less likely to break ranks over an act of conscience? You’d get a court-martial, not just a refused reference.) And K -Punk is correct that we should be wary of taking at face value Hollywood’s willingness to paint corporations as evil.
Moreover, and alas, the way to depict corporations on film was already done perfectly in ’Moon’. Briefly, the rule is not to – to just show the results of their self-aggrandising actions. (Similarly, I always liked the way that in the first ’Alien’ film the Corporation appeared only as calculating instructions on a monitor screen. Alas, this restriction was reneged on for the sequels.)
They are, after all, faceless institutions who never care about us because they never meet us - indeed barely belong to the same reality system as us. Legally speaking, a corporation is a person, but they are more like a logo transformed into a ravenous, all-consuming monster. Even if you were to burst into a board meeting you would not really reach a corporation’s heart or brain, merely come across some of the more senior staff while they were passing through. Though the panto villainy on show here is egregious and absurd, it is to some degree the inevitable result of missing this essential point.
It may not have thought it needed it, but it’s notable that once the bomb plot is essentially resolved the film unravels. It breaks almost all its own rules and reverses its tone to serve up a happy ending, to a nadir of chutzpah beyond even the original version of ‘Blade Runner’. Pretty much everyone agrees the film falls apart at the point where the central ‘eight minute’ deadline is busted. But I was already having my doubts when the hero was allowed his one last mission, in defiance of all mission protocols. (He doesn’t quite say “I need this!” but he may as well have done.)
‘Inception’s achilles heel was dream worlds which could never escape the ‘architecture’ of video games – guns, strongholds, secret plans in safes to “take” like enemy Kings. ‘Source Code’, conversely, uses the formal devices of video games to create an invigorating premise – then succumbs to the basest of movie clichés. It becomes a tick-box exercise in the worst kind of Christian Vogler’s accountancy of storytelling. Treating the world like it’s your personal psychological terrain? Check! Atonement with the father? Check! Following your bliss and living for today? Check! Getting the girl as a direct result of this? Check!(As Martin Lewis of Strange Horizons puts it: “hello sky, hello trees; hello train, hello terrorists.”)
Maybe someone will one day make a film which honours the smart and enticing premise we start with here. As it is, you’re really better off walking out three-quarters through and making up your own ending.
PS: I did think of writing a reiterative review to celebrate the film’s structure, forever going back to the start again when some new idea struck me. (“This film is a whodunnit... wait, let’s start over...”) But in the end I couldn’t be bothered...