The Midnight After (Hong Kong 2014)

The survivors in home-made protection gear prepared to take on whatever comes next in THE MIDNIGHT AFTER

The survivors in home-made protection gear prepared to take on whatever comes next in THE MIDNIGHT AFTER

Fruit Chan is the Hong Kong director best known in the UK for his independent film classic Made in Hong Kong (HK 1997) and his horror features and portmanteau film episodes such as Dumplings (HK 2004). His latest venture proved a suitably bonkers but enjoyable finale to the Asia Triennial 14 Festival screenings programme at Cornerhouse, Manchester. Chosen by festival programmers Sarah Perks and Andy Willis, both HK cinema fans, it proved to be the ‘popular cinema with a message’ that doesn’t usually get onto UK cinema screens.

The Midnight After is an adaptation (loosely, I imagine) of an internet novel that went viral and was eventually published in print form. At first glance it looks like a conventional horror genre flic. A mini-bus driver is called from his mahjong game as a substitute driver for a late-night service starting in Kowloon and heading out to Tai Po in the New Territories. The passengers are a motley crew of students, young couples and older eccentrics. Part way through the Lion tunnel something happens and the bus arrives in a deserted and apparently post-apocalyptic Tai Po. Panic gradually sets in, some members of the group break away and die in mysterious circumstances. We’ve seen it all before but Chan’s track record suggests that the usual conventions won’t deliver the usual outcomes or the usual pleasures.

I’m not going to pretend that I knew what was going on for much of the film and I certainly didn’t ‘get’ the ending – just like everyone else. I can also understand the complaints that the film is too long (123 mins is pushing it for this kind of production) but overall I enjoyed the experience.

Chan’s 1997 film was one of the last of the films exploring life for youths in Hong Kong during the final months of control from London before the ‘handover’ to China. It doesn’t take too much imagination to work out that the passengers on the minibus (and the driver) are representative of certain groups in Hong Kong society and that trying to organise themselves into a group in order to survive – and to try to understand what is happening – is a metaphor for ordinary HK residents trying to deal with the Chines authorities. On the other hand, they also behave a bit like the marooned schoolboys in Lord of the Flies and the folk getting together to fight zombies in Romero’s Living Dead films. Chan gives us some good laughs between the blood and gore and other effects. A highlight is a decoded message referring to David Bowie’s hit ‘Space Oddity’. Another reference is to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The ending of the film seems like it is deliberately set up for a sequel. (In fact the whole narrative feels like an extended episode or episodes of Dr Who.) The film was successful in its home market where the actors, the dialects and cultural references – as well as the political implications – make most sense. I wonder if it might also do well in other parts of East Asia. At times it reminded me of Korean and Japanese films. One website informs us that Chan released a second version of the film cut to be screened to under-18s and an obvious ploy to expand the audience. The Midnight After made HK$10 million after just 6 days on release and Chan has said that he will definitely make a sequel if the box office passes HK$30 million. To put this in perspective, the target is the equivalent of just under US$4 million. Still, this is a significant amount for a domestic HK film these days. I hope the director gets his wish. I’m just glad to have seen an enjoyable comedy-horror in ‘Scope.

Hong Kong popular cinema is discussed in both Chapter 2 and Chapter 11 in The Global Film Book. The idea of developing an internet novel into a film is explored in Chapter 2 in terms of the smash hit South Korean romantic comedy My Sassy Girl (2001).

Here’s a trailer (an English-subtitled Region 3 DVD is available from YesAsia):

Beti and Amare (Ethiopia-Germany-Canada 2014)

Local men approach Beti offering 'protection' against the Italians.

Local men approach Beti offering ‘protection’ against the Italians.

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680The two young filmmakers behind Beti and Amare were present to introduce and discuss this festival screening at the ICA. Andy Siege performs most of the technical roles and appears himself in a small but crucial role in the film. Pascal Dawson plays ‘Amare’ and generally supports his working partner. Together the two are Kalulu Entertainment and this, their first fiction feature, is a ‘speculative fiction’ set in Ethiopia in 1936.

Andy Siege was born in Kenya to German aid workers and grew up in Africa and Europe, studying film in Canada. In the Q&A he identified as ‘African’. Pascal Dawson was born in Vancouver. The others in the small cast are Ethiopians, both experienced actors and non-professionals. The production budget was just €14,000. This isn’t noticeable in terms of the film overall except possibly with the archive footage of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was known then) in 1936 – which the credits suggest came from the Internet Archive. The film does switch between monochrome and colour and I couldn’t work out why (I did miss part of the introduction, perhaps it was explained then) – but I didn’t find this a problem.

The story is simple. A young woman, ‘Beti’ returns to her home region in Southern Abyssinia hoping to avoid the Italians. She stays with her grandfather in an isolated hut. He then sets off to buy a new goat, leaving the young woman in charge. She discovers that she faces a double challenge. A group of local men on horseback want to ‘protect her’ (and one wants to marry her) and she also fears that the Italians will appear. Then one day at the waterhole she discovers a strange young man, ‘Amare’. Where has he come from? Is he ill? Did he emerge naked from an egg? Is he real or a figment of her imagination? She decides to look after him. When trouble appears there are now two of them to face it together.

This is an imaginative use of familiar genre elements in an African context. African filmmakers struggle with lack of resources and audiences who have been mainly entertained by the crudest forms of Western, Indian and Hong Kong popular cinema. Could a film like this succeed in attracting audiences in Africa? I don’t know, but it does show how a quality production can be achieved on limited resources by filmmakers who have Africa in their hearts and the knowledge and contacts to exploit new technologies efficiently. So far the film has had mainly festival screenings. It will be interesting to see if it gets a wider distribution and if Kalulu can make more films in the same manner. I certainly enjoyed the film and I hope Kalulu succeed in their ambitions.

The official trailer:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (US 2013)

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Attending this screening with Rona felt a little like a cultural studies day out. There was a big audience for a 4 pm showing in the Hebden Bridge Picture House – young teenagers and some parents and grandparents. I didn’t count them but my impression was that the audience was more female than male. This was a different experience to watching part 1 of the franchise in an early evening show in Cineworld with the usual dozen people in a 200-250 seat cinema. Since then the franchise has really taken off and Jennifer Lawrence has become the star of the moment.

Our interest in the film is principally in terms of a social phenomenon. I remember enjoying Part 1 but finding it insubstantial apart from Ms Lawrence and the presence of Donald Sutherland, an old favourite. At the beginning of part 2, I realised that after 18 months I had forgotten most of the other characters (and most of the plot details) and it took me a while to get up to speed. It’s a long film at 146 mins and although never bored I did find myself reflecting on the nature of blockbusters. Half the film is a variation on the first film with more sophisticated games (with much more spent on effects) and the other half deals with the politics of preparing the contestants. This half has moved on and allowed some development of the theme of resistance in the fascist state that created the games. So, on the one hand we have a film that increasingly resembles the experience of playing a game (but I’m not a gamer and I might be reading this incorrectly?) and on the other at least the possibility of some kind of political comment. Critics and audiences have seemingly found this irresistible since the film is one of the biggest box office successes of the year with over $800 million worldwide. Half of that comes from North America suggesting that the international appeal is slightly less (the ‘normal’ split is more like 37:63). I’m not sure how to read that and it may be something worth investigating. Like the Twilight franchise, The Hunger Games is not a major studio release and the international market may be a harder sell for Lionsgate.

There can’t be too much doubt that much of the film’s success is based on the performance and star persona of Jennifer Lawrence. A genuine female action hero is hard to achieve. All the comic book female heroes seem to end up in some kind of  fetish gear outfit like Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, in leather like Kate Beckinsale in Underworld or in hot pants like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Ms Lawrence does wear a wet suit in Hunger Games but her appearance is much more like a triathlete in the Olympics with a body for fighting not posing. She looks terrific without make-up but she can still carry off the twirl in a fantastic wedding dress. She’s a young woman with a great mind, a great body and a healthy attitude, no wonder she is a potential role model. She carries the film but I did wonder, sitting amongst a large audience, exactly how they were interacting with her screen presence. I was surprised that I didn’t feel more of the excitement of the audience. Instead there was the stillness of rapt attention.

I would concur with the critics who see this as a highly competent directorial effort by Francis Lawrence (perhaps helped by Simon Beaufoy’s addition to the writing team). The money is on the screen and the addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman is a major plus. The ending of the film is well-handled, setting up the next in the franchise. I think, however, that the ‘political’ theme has been over-hyped and I did find most of the other characters rather bland and unmemorable. I know the film isn’t aimed at me and the target audience won’t have seen many of the earlier films referenced – or have the same bored response to a satire on reality TV. I excuse Jena Malone from the bland tag. I recognised her from Donnie Darko and she injected a bit of extra life. Otherwise Jennifer Lawrence commands the screen.

One one trail for the film I spotted a typo in the director’s name which was listed as ‘Frances’ Lawrence. That did make me wonder why the film doesn’t have a female director – who might have a clearer idea of how to exploit the star power of Jennifer Lawrence in even more productive ways for the benefit of a young female audience?

Prometheus (UK/US 2012)

Noomi Rapace as archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw in ‘Prometheus’

Prometheus is a good example of ‘Global Hollywood’ and its release in 2012 points to several aspects of how Hollywood is coping with the evolving global film ecology. The film is a prequel of sorts to the Alien franchise which began in 1979 with three further instalments (and two more related to the Predator franchise) over the next thirty years.

The production cost an estimated $130-140 million to produce and a great deal to market ($60 million if the 50% of production cost rule applies). Only a Hollywood studio could afford that kind of money. It was produced by three companies, two American and one British for the studio major 20th Century Fox. Producer-director Ridley Scott is British, the scriptwriters are American. The principal technical credits are for Europeans who are all US residents (Polish cinematographer, Italian film editor, German music composer). There are thirteen speaking parts in the film and these are played by five English, two Scottish, one South-African, one Irish-German, one Australian, one Swedish-Spanish and two American actors. Having said that, all the principals are known to American film and television audiences. As if to add to the confusion, the art director Arthur Max is an American who has worked mostly in the UK. The film was shot mainly on Pinewood sets in the UK and on location in Iceland, Scotland and Spain. The extensive visual effects work was carried out in the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.

Trying to assign ‘nationality’ to a film like Prometheus is clearly pointless. IMDB currently describes it as a ‘US’ production. That must be wrong. If anything it is a British production using international talent and facilities, all of which are paid for with American money (though of course that money probably comes ultimately from a variety of sources).

Prometheus is a ‘tentpole’ release by 20th Century Fox, a News Corporation company. Its release strategy follows that of Avengers Assemble (or whatever it is called internationally!) in releasing to the ‘International’ market a week before the ‘domestic’ North American release. I haven’t yet seen a convincing argument as to why this development has taken place. We know that ‘international’ is now twice the size of ‘domestic’ but that doesn’t explain why it necessarily comes first. In the UK, Prometheus opened on 1,019 screens with 73% of box office coming from 3D presentations (UK multiplexes are now almost completely converted to digital projection). Given that the opening date coincided with the Jubilee celebrations this was perhaps an odd decision. On the other hand, it was also a school holiday (it’s a ’15’ release) and the weather in the UK has been terrible – which is always good for the box office. I expect a healthy total for the full week following a weekend screen average of $10,000 (though the inflated cost of 3D presentations disguises the admissions numbers). The film opens in the US today.

But what about the film as a narrative? It deals with a mission at the end of the 21st century to find an alien civilisation which may have visited the Earth 3,000 years ago – as seen on cave paintings. (This idea is loosely drawn from The Chariot of the Gods, the 1968 book by Erich von Däniken.) The ship’s crew find the remains of an alien base, which at first appears derelict, but then . . . etc.

I confess that I’m not a Ridley Scott fan. His films are brilliantly ‘visualised’ and always contain exciting sequences – but most of the time they are also confused and messy in their storytelling. On a few occasions Scott has had a decent script and a strong cast and the film is a standout – I give you Thelma and Louise and Alien. (I still can’t forgive the scriptwriters for what they did to Phil K. Dick’s work in Blade Runner.) Unfortunately, I have to agree with what I think is the majority verdict on this, his latest film. Prometheus looks great, the cast is terrific and the script is pretty ropey. (I watched a 2D version.)

Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are terrific, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron have less to do but certainly have a presence and with supporting cast as strong as Kate Dickie, Sean Harris, Timothy Spall and Benedict Wong there shouldn’t really be a problem (the casting and the theme of the film are very reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s underrated Sunshine).

There will no doubt be a sequel (i.e. at least one more prequel to Alien) but I hope that more work goes on the script. I’ll just mention one irritating script element. At the beginning of the film a credit tells us that the ‘Prometheus’ has a crew of 17 – yet only 10 of the crew have lines of dialogue. In a confined space like the ship, doesn’t it seem lazy to have nearly half the crew as simple, mute spear carriers?

I think in the end that this ‘global film’ isn’t in fact ‘global’ enough. It will be interesting to see how it fares at the box office outside Europe and North America. An English-speaking audience will hear its ‘Britishness’ in the dialogue but that will be lost in dubbing. In the first week, Prometheus was released in 15 territories and entered the international chart at No 3. It failed to beat Men In Black 3 (in 90 territories) and Snow White and the Huntsman (in 45 territories). The comparison with Snow White is significant. That film was in its second week in some territories but its screen average was still higher than that of Prometheus. The grittier, more ‘realist’ end of science fiction is not such a global attraction as comedy and romance/fantasy.

Many territories will see the film as simply ‘American’. On the other hand, there is not a specifically American ideological feel about the story – though it does have a ‘creationist’ discourse which I assume will resonate more in the US than it does over here. It’s worth remembering that the original Alien was written by Dan O’Bannon (co-creator of one of my favourite science fiction films Dark Star (1974)) during the counter-culture years in Southern California – indeed, Wikipedia suggests that the Alien script was developed from Dark Star. I don’t know if that influenced the sense of corporate exploitation of space with its truculent crew but the Alien films seem quite different in ideological terms to the Star Trek franchise (which has always felt like an odd combination of progressive, liberal ideas married to an American military ethos).

It’s going to be interesting to see how feminist film studies approaches this ‘re-boot’ of the Alien franchise. And I’m particularly looking forward to the analysis of Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw v. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, triangulated with Noomi as Lisbeth Salander. I suspect that Ms Rapace is here to stay. She looks and sounds different – and she is an outstanding acting talent.

In Time (US 2011)

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried 'on the run' – a reminder of 'The Adjustment Bureau' (but without hats!)?

In Time seemed to come out of nowhere. That’s what happens when you don’t watch American films or TV on a regular basis. The plot sounded interesting but when I heard that it was  an Andrew Niccol movie I was determined to see it. Niccol is the closest filmmaker I know to aspects of 1950s/60s science fiction literature. His script for The Truman Show was quasi-Dickian. Gattaca is a favourite film for many reasons – not least its production design and cinematography. (Niccol, a New Zealander, worked in the advertising films business in London and he seems to have good contacts.) S1mone was, if nothing else, an original idea that satirised Hollywood and celebrity (simulacra and celebrity – another Dickian theme). I haven’t seen Lord of War – a satire of a different kind – but it has many supporters. In Time is said to be very similar in its narrative ideas to a Harlan Ellison short story ”Repent Harlequin! said the Ticktock Man’ written in 1965. Ellison appears to have filed a plagiarism suit against 20th Century Fox but there doesn’t seem to be any injunction against the film’s release.

In Time finds Niccol back in potentially Dickian territory. It has elements of Minority Report (a dogged policeman chasing the hero through an alternative future/present landscape), some design ideas that at least remind us of the intelligence of Gattaca, an underclass borrowed from Soylent Green and The Matrix and it ends like Bonnie and Clyde. What’s not to like? Best of all it offers the most sustained critique of a capitalist system (in which time is literally money and is accumulated by the few to oppress the many) that you are likely to see in mainstream cinema. Perhaps this is why the film has been deemed something of a flop in North America, but a hit in the rest of the world. With plenty more openings to come the ‘International Box Office’ is nearly twice North America. According to Box Office Mojo it has taken $13 million in Russia, but only $30 million in North America. In the UK, audiences have made it into a successful release despite only moderately good reviews. In some ways I think that the film is working like The Adjustment Bureau – which it resembles in narrative ideas and overall feel. With senses dulled by a succession of clunky action pictures, I imagine some mainstream audiences have been surprised to find a film that has intelligence, a romance of sorts and some good performances in amongst the obligatory car chases.

Cillian Murphy as the 'Time Keeper' – the display behind him lists 'time as money'.

The basic premise is that this alternative society has evolved to the point where genetics and medicine are able to keep the population alive indefinitely. But to maintain control, the rich have developed a system which decrees that when anyone reaches the age of 25 they must ‘buy’ extra years of life in order to stay alive. The ‘life bank balance’ is displayed on the forearm and paying for anything is like giving up blood or receiving a transfusion of new funds when payments are received. When your time runs out, you die immediately. The elite have thousands of years available but the poor live, like the working classes have always done since the start of the industrial revolution, ‘on the edge’, borrowing time or pawning goods. The ‘inciting incident’ sees the hero, Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) ‘receive’ over a 100 years of time unexpectedly. This young man from the ‘ghetto’, who is used to living with only a day or so ‘in the bank’, determines to visit the rich gated enclave in order to make a statement of some kind. He is driven by personal grief and an overall belief in living on the edge  but also a genuine sense of sharing whatever he has – the nearest Hollywood gets to a socialist hero. (I don’t want to spoil the narrative, suffice to say that there are many interesting inferences about past insurrections, including perhaps actions by Will’s dead father.) Inevitably, Will ends up seducing/abducting Sylvia Weis the daughter of the richest man in town, a genuine ‘time lord’, and being pursued by a determined cop – a ‘timekeeper’ (played wonderfully by Cillian Murphy). The cop, of course, is from the ghetto himself and attempts to keep a ‘professional attitude’ towards his job even if his sympathies might be with the poor rather than the rich. Each day he works with only a limited number of hours on his arm so as not to attract too many time thieves, the piranhas of the poor communities. Alex Pettyfor plays a gangster with a British accent straight out of a Guy Ritchie film leading a group of time thieves known as ‘Minutemen’. This seems like a good bit of satire. As well as the pun on ‘time thieves’, ‘minutemen’ were American militia groups fighting the British in the War of Independence and subsequently the name of the US silo-launched missile defences against the Soviets. The cynical amongst us might see them as agents of the American ruling class – personified by in the film by Sylvia’s father (played by the curiously soft but vampiric Vincent Kartheiser).

Alex Pettyfor as Fortis, leader of the 'Minutemen'.

Amanda Seyfried as Sylvia, playing the Patty Hearst role. This image is so fetishised (the gun, the dress, the shoes) that it refers to Faye Dunaway in 'Bonnie and Clyde' as well as 'Nikita'.

The film looks great photographed by Roger Deakins in various shades of blue and sepia-gold. Production designer Alex McDowell worked on Minority Report and Costume Designer Colleen Atwood has a very long list of credits including Gattaca and most of Tim Burton’s films. However, I guess she was partly resonsible for my one niggle with the film. The rich girl hero is played by Amanda Seyfried who spends most of her time in the action sequences running and climbing/jumping in various short skirts and vertiginous heels, both stiletto and more substantial but all designed to ruin her feet. I wondered if this was some kind of hommage to the Anne Parillaud character in Luc Besson’s Nikita. (Ms Seyfried also sports an Anna Karina bob.) The first time we meet her, the little black dress and heels are appropriate for the setting but after that I was almost wishing for some product placement that would allow her to don skinny jeans and trainers. The rich girl with the poor boy is a genre staple of course but in this case a reference to heiress Patty Hearst, abducted by the ‘Symbionese Liberation Army’ in 1974, seems appropriate. There have been many sniffy reviews about Timberlake and Seyfried and their acting abilities but I thought that they were both fine in their roles and exactly what this kind of material required.

The main sensible criticism of the film focuses on the difference between the ideas heavy first half and the action-packed second half. The first half certainly has a very clever script – possibly with too many ideas. I’ve seen some reviews that suggest that the writer has not thought about the ideas at all. Perhaps this isn’t surprising as the promotion of the film has followed the same misguided route as that for The Adjustment Bureau. The trailers we sat through before the film were all for violent action films.  I’m not an action fan but the sequences in In Time seemed OK to me. There are some interesting twists in the closing stages and the final shot is terrific. Take this as a genre film which makes satirical points about greed and inequalities in capitalist society (while simultaneously fetishising youth and the promise of sexual excitement – not actually shown) and you have an entertaining night out. The more I think about the film, the more the ideas come. The central premise means that no-one looks over 25 and the actress playing Justin Timberlake’s mum (Olivia Wilde) is actually younger than he is. This is a neat comment on Hollywood and roles for older women – cf Cary Grant and Jessie Royce Landis, the actress playing his mother in North by Northwest who was actually a few months his junior.

Super 8 (US 2011)

"Look to the skies!" A Spielbergian moment for Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Ron Eldard. © Paramount Pictures

When the closing credits began to roll on this film, my main thought was “Why go to all this trouble not to say anything?”. The short film that actually appears in the credits is in some ways more interesting than what precedes it. J.J. Abrams appears to have made a Spielberg tribute film. It’s well-made and engaging most of the time with good performances by the young actors at the core of the narrative – but it doesn’t add up to anything. On reflection the final third of the film is a bit of a mess as the plot doesn’t make much sense and I didn’t really understand why some things were happening. But by then I didn’t really care.

The story rehashes bits of Close Encounters and ET with elements of Alien and Poltergeist, Minority Report and probably several other Spielberg-related films. Set in the Summer of 1979 (three Mile Island is mentioned on a news report) it places a group of young teens making a zombie picture (referencing George Romero’s early Living Dead films) who witness a train crash close to an isolated town. But this is more than just a crash and soon the US Air Force are in town cleaning up the mess and starting to behave suspiciously. You can pretty much invent the rest of the plot from there. The boy and girl at the centre have both lost their mothers and have to live with inadequate fathers. The boys ride round on chopper bikes as in ET etc. I stress that it is well done and Abrams seems to have gone as far as selecting the most appropriate filmstock and colour grading to mimic the 1970s/80s films set in small towns. Unfortunately he is as sentimental as Spielberg so it doesn’t get beyond a film for 12 year-olds and those who wish they were 12 again – nothing wrong with that and I hope they enjoy it. It’s also much longer than it needs to be. Pruning the action sequences would make a tighter leaner film.

Of course, there is no reason why a genre film shouldn’t aim for being simply entertaining but it does need a twist or a new element to create ‘difference’ with the ‘repetition’. I couldn’t find the difference here and after all the hype (and the big budget spend) I was hoping for something more. While I was watching Super 8 it occurred to me that there was another film set around this period with a pair of protagonists of about this age. Let the Right One In has quite a few strengths that J.J. Abrams could learn from. I also thought about Monsters with its beautiful gas station scene on a budget of peanuts. Abrams also has a gas station scene that works pretty well but I’m guessing he spent a lot more. The Korean movie The Host borrows some of the same tropes as Super 8 but also offers a critique of the family and of Korean domestic politics and foreign policy. Super 8 is being touted as the ‘intelligent’ blockbuster of the year which doesn’t bode well for Hollywood.

Source Code (Canada/France/US 2011)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michele Monaghan as commuters – are they a couple? She knows him, but he doesn't know her.

It’s turning out to be a good season for intelligent and well-crafted science fiction/speculative fiction. Following Monsters and The Adjustment Bureau, Source Code again offers a cerebral SF movie with a strong romance element – although very different from the two earlier films.

The only surprise for me was that the movie cost so much. Box Office Mojo suggests $32 million – I wonder how much of that went to Jake Gyllenhaal? Or perhaps it was all those aerial shots of Chicago? I wonder how much of it was CGI? The budget is interesting because this is an independent film with no Hollywood involvement. A Brit director (Duncan Jones), an American story (from Ben Ripley) and a largely French-Canadian crew (in Montreal) worked for a couple of independent production companies and the film has generally been released by independents. Business has been pretty good with $63 million worldwide so far and only three major territories (North America, Russia and UK/Ireland) on the release slate. One explanation for the film’s genesis is that Gyllenhaal was attached to the script for some time without a director being signed up. He saw Moon and suggested to the producers that they should hire Jones.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Jake Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, a US helicopter pilot in Afghanistan who wakes up on a Chicago commuter train not knowing what is going on when the woman opposite (Michelle Monaghan) calls him ‘Sean’ and appears to know him well. Eight minutes later there is an enormous explosion. Stevens blacks out and wakes again in some form of capsule. Is he part of an experiment in a simulating experiences or is he dreaming? He talks to a ‘controller’ who explains more about his brief . . . and sends him back to the same train at the same time. This cycle will be repeated several times.

Genre

This fits the ‘speculative fiction’/science fiction definition pretty well. The plot depends on the possibilities of developing technologies concerned with direct connection to electrical impulses in the brain. In that sense, the ideas are familiar from decades of SF. Many SF film fans have complained that the film isn’t ‘original’ in terms of its ideas and I’m sure they are right. The ideas could be argued to be ‘Dickian’ in origin – i.e. similar to those of Philip K. Dick in several of his stories. However, what is original – or at least, less familiar – is the genuine interest in relationships. You can see why Gyllenhaal would have thought that Jones could direct the script after he had made Moon since the mixture of SF, limited ‘action’ sequences and relationship dilemmas in that film is repeated here. I think we really do care by the end of the film what happens to each of the characters and how Stevens’ decisions affect them.

Another genre repertoire that is important is the ‘puzzle film’. At first I thought we were going to get a version of the Rashomon narrative – perhaps as in the Lola rennt (Run, Lola, Run) mode, but I think that Source Code is slightly different. Those narratives require a repeated presentation of the same events from the viewpoint of different characters (i.e. potential ‘unreliable narrators’). In Source Code, the events change each time since Stevens learns a little more about what is going on and attempts to change what happens in the eight minutes. But he doesn’t do this by ‘time travel’ so much as gaining intelligence from the past that could help to change the future. The narrative has a final twist that suggests that he also does something else – but I won’t spoil how the narrative enigma evolves over the course of the film. I suspect that many in the audience will want to watch the film a second time to check out their own understanding – I certainly will as I’m not sure I’ve got it right.

The restricted narrative space also makes this a ‘train thriller’. The obvious connection here is to Hitchcock and North by Northwest, not only in the on board train meeting (see the still above) but also the scenes in the station washroom. It’s great to see American films returning to trains – always more interesting than car chases for me. (I went straight to the Chicago Commuter Train website to check out the system – it looks impressive.) The thriller also has a contemporary feel because of the intimation of a terrorist threat – and the assumptions that creates.

Vera Farmiga as the 'Controller' and Jeffrey Wright as her boss.

Reception

There were stories in the first couple of weeks on release that this film was too clever for its own good – that some audiences weren’t bright enough to ‘get it’. This is nonsense of course. The film has reached beyond the fans of Moon I think to pick up mainstream SF fans and others. Some haven’t enjoyed the film but most have. The box office doesn’t lie and Source Code has ‘legs’ – at least in the US and UK. The weekly drop in audience numbers has been much lower than for comparable Hollywood SF films.

Like Moon, Source Code has a limited number of main characters (five) and only a few locations. Casting was clearly important and I think it works very well. Gyllenhaal is slightly unconventional for a leading man/action figure (although it may be just because I still tend to think of him as Donnie Darko) – has he always had that slightly manic eye, horribly reminding me of Tony Blair? But what most intrigued me was that I took Michelle Monaghan to be the same age or younger than Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga to be the ‘older woman’. In fact Monaghan is three years older than Gyllenhaal and just three years younger than Farmiga. Clearly she acts/dresses ‘younger’ but I also wonder if the uniform and her authority makes Farmiga look/feel older?Either way it’s good to have decent roles for women in SF.

Here’s the trailer (WARNING: it gives away more of the plot than this review):