Low-budget filmmaking has one big drawback: you become so used to creating so much with so little, that when someone offers you a lot more money, you panic and lose all your marbles. So many promising, talented filmmakers, who earned critical acclaim through their Spartan early efforts, have come a cropper the second the budget started to creep up. It takes a truly great filmmaker to hold his or her nerve when Hollywood beckons - and one such filmmaker is Duncan Jones.
Consider the evidence. Source Code, Jones' second feature film, has a budget of $32m - just over 6 times the budget of Moon three years ago, without adjusting for inflation. Obviously with more money involved and access to the latest special effects, you would expect a more mainstream effort. But Source Code is every bit as gripping, intelligent and distinctive as his debut - and that should warm the cockles of anybody's heart.
Source Code could be pithily described as Moon's mainstream cousin, since the two films have a number of similarities in terms of subject and execution. Quite apart from both having their roots firmly in the smart end of science fiction, they both have prominent elements of conspiracy, rooted around individuals being unknowingly exploited by their governments.
More importantly, both Moon and Source Code manage to address complex abstract issue of morality, truth, duty and reality while remaining intimate and human. In a genre which is often characterised as being cold and clinical, Jones gives us a series of believable, well-rounded and intelligent characters which seem compelling even if we know that what we are seeing is fixed and pre-determined. We enjoy their company as our brains race around, frantically looking for answers to the various riddles the film offers us.
Just as Moon looked back to the likes of Solaris, Soylent Green and Silent Running, so Source Code refers back to a number of previous works within science fiction. Apart from its superficial resemblance to Groundhog Day and Déja Vu, the film owes a large debt to Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. Both Cole and Colter Stevens are characters who are sent to the past (in a sense) to prevent a future disaster - and both eventually rebel against their mission and choose to remain in the doomed reality.
There are also fleeting comparisons with The Jacket and Jacob's Ladder, which deal with the idea of a mentally ill soldier wrestling with demons which may be the product of his imagination. But Source Code departs from this sub-genre by focussing less on the nature of the fantasy and more on the ethics behind the source code itself. It is less about what happens during those eight minutes, as to what is causing those eight minutes to occur and for what purpose.
The conspiracy elements in Source Code address strong ethical issues while tapping into public anxiety and suspicion over Western involvement in the Middle East. Central to this is the idea that soldiers' semi-functional brain matter could be used in government operations after their death, a practice sanctioned by military courts but over which the soldiers themselves would have no say. The film addresses the idea of soldiers being drilled to obey even in death, taking the deconstruction of the 'grunts' from Full Metal Jacket and bringing it into the 21st century.
As with Moon, Source Code explores the idea of manipulating human lives for political gain. The difference is that this manipulation is now occurring on both sides, with both the bomber and the US government going to extremes to achieve their respective goals. When Stevens finds and confronts the bomber, he says that "we have a chance to rebuild from the rubble - but you need rubble to start with". This is echoed in Stevens' own predicament: in order for the source code to work as a weapon against terrorism, it needs a small number of mentally special cases which have come about through the war on terror.
Source Code is also about the fragmentation of identity, and particularly the role of the mind in creating or assigning identity. On a basic level, the film explores what it would be like to be somebody else for a short period of time. During his eight-minute periods as Sean Fentriss, Stevens re-evaluates the world around him, and finds a way to come to terms with who he is as he discovers what really happened in Afghanistan. Towards the end of the film there is a heart-breaking sequence of Stevens (as Fentriss) calling his real-life father and apologising on his own behalf.
But this exploration of identity is not confined to the events within the train. As we spend more time inside the source code, the film raises the question of whether identity is determined by the mind or self, or whether it is the product of how others perceive you. In his mind, Colter Stevens knows he is an ex-soldier, but the more time he spends in the source code, the more the two personalities begin to intersect until we don't entirely know where Stevens ends and Fentriss begins.
This line of questioning is brought to a chilling conclusion by the final revelations about Stevens' mental state. But even before we get there, Source Code does a great job of throwing us off course with its various twists. Ben Ripley's script plants subtle little doubts about the safety of the source code - like Stevens commenting on hydraulic fluid leaking out, or how cold the chamber is becoming. As its emerges that what he is seeing is largely a projection, we are thrown into a maelstrom of doubts about what is real, leading us to cling to the character as he stumbles blindly through the darkness.
Source Code is also technically accomplished, both in its shooting style and its approach to the time loop storyline. Going back to the same eight minutes over and over could quickly become tedious, but Jones never lets that happen, using a variety of creative decisions to keep us interested. The first time around, everything is played straight for tension, so that the bombing comes as a complete surprise. But gradually more comedy is introduced to defuse the tension, such as Stevens' ribbing with the comedian or predicting what Michelle Monaghan is going to say. By the time he is hunting for the bomber, Jones scrolls through the time rapidly until it becomes necessary to slow down and take in a twist.
The only flaw with Source Code is its ending. As with the so-called 'happy' ending in Brazil, you can understand the reasons for doing it, and it adds up to some extent mechanically - for instance, the recurring images of the mirror sculpture being finally explained. But you still come away feeling like the film would have been more emotionally and intellectually satisfying had it ended in the freeze-frame on the train. And that's not to mention the alternate time line, which shows source code yet to be used - again, it works, but it isn't necessary.
Despite its ending, Source Code is a really great sci-fi thriller and one of the best films of 2011. Jones demonstrates his intelligence and visual flare as a director, wringing every last drop of emotion and nuance out of what could be a preposterous premise. Jake Gyllenhaal gives his best performance since Donnie Darko in the lead, and is supported by strong turns from Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright. It will take many more films before Jones begins to challenge Christopher Nolan for the mantle of Britain's best living filmmaker. But on the basis of this, he's well on his way.