Archive for April 13, 2011

Playing games with the faces

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2011 by dcairns

I was sort-of tolerant, but not particularly generous towards Duncan Jones’ MOON — I felt the plot and science didn’t quite hang together and the film’s slavish devotion to the 2001 design aesthetic promoted cuteness over originality. But then two things happened, neither of which should influence my feelings about Jones’ latest, SOURCE CODE, but who knows, maybe they do.

(1) I saw Jones tearfully accept a BAFTA, and his emotion wasn’t the typical award-winners’ schmaltz or the feedback of a well-stroked ego going into overdrive, but a sincere reaction to, as he put it, the realisation that he’d found what he wanted to do with his life. There are limits to even my curmudgeonliness, and I warmed to him.

(2) Belated discovery that some of the crazy and implausible-sounding science in MOON is actually authentic. I could be difficult, and say the film’s job was to convince me, rather than relying on me recognizing the truth when I see it, but again, there are limits.

Like MOON, with its 2001 and BLADE RUNNER borrowings, SOURCE CODE wears its influences not so much on its sleeve as dangling round its neck, on top of its head, and winking like neon signs everywhere else, but the plot logic hangs together at least a bit better — there are unanswered questions, but they seem like fertile brain-nourishment rather than nagging chasms.

You know the story? That nice boy Jake Gyllenhaal awakens without memory on a train and finds he’s got somebody else’s face and ID, and then the train blows up. It turns out that a secret military program has devised the means to project his consciousness into the short-term memory of a passenger who died in this terrorist attack. The memory is only eight minutes long, so he has that much time to identify the bomber and prevent a subsequent, far more large-scale atrocity. Philip K Dick has finally and fully conquered Hollywood.

(Interesting that the plot turns on a dirty nuke, that media bugbear we were all supposed to be scared of a few years back. The script even contains the line “Do you have any idea how many people would die?” to which the answer, I believe, is “None” — the initial blast might take out a few, but the probability is that evacuation could take place before the radiation did any serious harm to anyone else. Still, Chicago would be uninhabitable for a while, and SOURCE CODE makes Chicago look very attractive, so that would be a shame.)

This gimmick allows the movie to mimic some of the patterns of game-playing — if you die, you just go back in and start again from shortly before you snuffed it. It’s the big factor separating games from real life: the permanent second chance. Interestingly, and necessarily, SOURCE CODE uses the idea to make things worse for the hero, not better — he’s trapped in a purgatorial scenario where he must re-live a traumatic event over and over again. The fact that he’s ex-military adds an undertone of post-traumatic stress disorder to the whole sisyphean situ.

The movie nods to TV show Quantum Leap with an audio guest-spot by that show’s star, Scott Bakula (Yay! Scott Bakula!), and there’s also the spectre of DEJA VU haunting the movie. You may get deja vu for DEJA VU. But while Tony Scott slathered his trademark “look” all over the Denzel Washington vehicle, with the aid of the Bruckheimer millions, he also messed with the plot, infusing it with his trademark stupidity. SOURCE CODE is defiantly smart, and has a heart.

(DEJA VU is still a more enjoyable movie than you might expect. One amusing attribute is that the time travel process depicted is extremely expensive — when you realise that Jerry Bruckheimer is attracted to stories in which vast sums of money are spent at the flick of a switch, you learn something about his reason for being. Each of his movies amounts to flashing his wad, showing off how much money he can afford to flush, basically waving his wallet in the faces of the people who buy tickets and enable him to live in a giant oxygen bubble scented with the fumes of burning banknotes. Each of his movie is a flickbook made from thousand-dollar bills.)

Unlike DEJA VU, this isn’t time travel, or looking through goggles at another time (a kind of reverse clairvoyance), but “time reassignment” — nothing Gyllenhaal does within the “source code” virtual universe sprung from a dead man’s memories is supposed to have any real-world effect — so the people on the train are all doomed. Or are they? Well, Hollywood doesn’t like its heroes powerless, so something will have to be done about that rule. I’m not 100% certain the film’s ending makes complete logical sense, but it doesn’t fall apart in your hands the way MOON’s did for me — instead I found it pleasingly bendy, open to different interpretations and, as Fiona remarked with terrific enthusiasm, genuinely quantum.