Living in a box

There should be a sci-fi subgenre called “brain in a box”. You know the type of story: the protagonist goes about his normal life (are there any female brains in a box in those stories?), but suddenly things start being… off. Things become strange around the edges. And then comes the revelation: the protagonist’s reality is actually ‘reality’. He’s plugged into some system that simulates life for him, often because he’s no longer a full-bodied human being. He’s a brain in a box. Cue existential despair and dramatic irony, though the upside is vastly reduced rent to pay.

Duncan Jones’ Source Code belongs to that sub-genre, even if strictly speaking Jake Gyllenhaal’s character is more of a torso in a box. It’s definitely a clever, fun addition to the BiaB family – but unfortunately it isn’t quite clever enough. See, it also belongs to a different sub-genre: that of “the one before that was way better.” Duncan Jones set the bar pretty high with Moon, another philosophical, existentialist sci-fi conundrum. Moon was perhaps a tad too ambitious for its own good – it tried to tell two stories but only ended up telling one (who am I, and why are there two of me?) really well, while fumbling the other (heartless corporations are heartless). It was, though, a fantastic first movie: smart, entertaining, poignant.

By comparison, Source Code is the earlier film’s cute but not quite as smart cousin. It’s unashamedly more Hollywood, which is fair enough – films want to be liked too! – but ends up being faintly disappointing. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for poignancy and melancholy, but what makes Source Code the lesser film is that it doesn’t balance its sci-fi plotline and its human element as deftly as Moon. Similarly to another Jake Gyllenhaal movie (think rabbits…) it’s most effective when it’s about a guy who tries to stay in control of his increasingly unhinged life, but when it decides it’s actually about these quasi-metaphysical sci-fi machinations the character drama becomes less touching, less real. It’s more difficult to care when the film geeks out over its sci-fi gimmick.

Not every sci-fi story has to have a strong human element, and not every story needs to be poignant. But Source Code tries to have its cake and eat it – be about the futuristic MacGuffin and be about its protagonist’s existential conundrum) without being quite clever enough to pull it off. Again, without its loony predecessor I might have liked it better, so perhaps I’m not being entirely fair; but in the end I can’t help thinking that Jones could do better than somewhat clever, somewhat entertaining, somewhat engaging. He has done better.

And perhaps, in some parallel universe he did do better the second time round, and there’s a quantum me writing a blog about how the successor to Moon was even better, even smarter – and so poignant it makes your tear ducts quiver with bittersweet glee…

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