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Getting to the 'Source'

Director Duncan Jones punches the clock in sci-fi style

By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / March 27, 2011

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When director Duncan Jones hit the road a couple of years ago with his first feature, the astronaut-on-the-verge indie “Moon,’’ he fielded more than a few questions about his famous dad, David Bowie. Still, nothing like a cerebral, dramatically sharp, visually overachieving sci-fi movie to help steer interview conversation in a different direction. Now Jones is back, with “Source Code,’’ a $30 million-plus, time-twisting mind-bender starring Jake Gyllenhaal that opens Friday. If the movie’s ambitions, Hitchcockian suspense, and heroic pathos resonate with audiences as early screenings indicate they might, don’t be surprised if the next Duncan Jones story you read does not mention Bowie at all.

In “Source Code,’’ Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a soldier who wakes up on a Chicago commuter train with no memory of how he got there; no understanding, certainly, of why he looks in a mirror and sees another man’s reflection; and no warning when the train suddenly explodes. Cut to a high-tech isolation pod, where, in bits and pieces, Colter gets the facts: He’s been drafted for an urgent mission to identify a terrorist who bombed the train hours earlier, and who’s imminently going to strike again. A top-secret program, dubbed the Source Code, enables Colter to cross over into the body of doomed passenger Sean Fentress — and a parallel reality — for eight minutes leading up to the blast. And our hero’s government handlers will keep sending him back to do it all again until he completes his mission, or real time runs out.

It’s the kind of fractured, repeating narrative that fans of “Memento’’ and other puzzle-box movies and shows eat right up, then digest ad infinitum. (See sidebar on Page N10 for some of our favorite examples.) Count Jones among those fans. During a stop in Boston last week, the director looks around the dark-toned, windowless interview space of a certain jailhouse-turned-hotel, and brightly jokes, “They’ve got me shackled to the table.’’ But given how enthusiastically he talks film, chatting about the way the “Source Code’’ script had him flashing back to, say, “12 Monkeys,’’ you know you could trust him with the key. “Rather than try to hide the influences, I tried to make them obvious,’’ says Jones, 39. “I mean, Scott Bakula is the voice [in a dramatic phone-call exchange] because I read that mirror scene and thought, ah, ‘Quantum Leap’! ’’

Having a few precedents for onscreen déjà vu didn’t make the production process any less challenging. “The first time I read the script was as an audience member would, and that’s what made me excited about doing it,’’ says Jones. “The second time, I read it as a director, looking at all the scares in it as far as how we were going to do it technically and keep some visual variety. We ended up approaching it very strategically, working out angles of attack for the cameras, and ensuring that each time, everything would be shifted.’’

A striking case in point: In the effects sequence depicting the initial bombing, the explosion is straightforwardly tracked through the train from inside, then through longer-range exterior shots. In a subsequent sequence, we see the blast wave blow across the faces of Gyllenhaal and costar Michelle Monaghan in slow motion, the sort of rippling, visage-distorting impact shot typically reserved for teched-out fight scenes.

To keep a handle on the tone that a given iteration demanded, be it panicked, skeptical, confrontational, or even romantic, cast and crew applied chapter titles to Colter’s various jumps such as “Pure Chaos’’ or “The Sim’’ (i.e., simulation). “Making a movie where you’re playing with time is a fun process,’’ says Gyllenhaal, who’s had a chance to meditate on the genre a bit, between “Source Code,’’ “Donnie Darko,’’ and even “Prince of Persia.’’ Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, he continues, “There’s not a moment where you can go on autopilot. And the audience experiences the same feeling. Time is an issue that inevitably creates tension, and in movies like this, you have the ability to create even more.’’

But that’s the stuff that will keep moviegoers wrapped up in “Source Code.’’ It’s the philosophy-rooted Big Ideas and debate-courting paradoxes that promise to keep them wrapped up long after hitting the theater exits. “If you think about it any deeper, you actually start to realize that the implications of Colter’s actions are quite selfish,’’ Jones says, gleefully launching into a devil’s-advocate riff on the very thing he’s promoting. “By jumping into this alternate reality and stopping the train from blowing up, he’s also killing Sean Fentress, since the only reason Sean had died was because of the bomb. Also, every time Colter jumps from one reality into another — every time he uses the Source Code and fails — he creates [another] entirely new reality where the bombing has occurred and hundreds have died.’’ He pauses a beat, then laughs, suddenly aware of how dark the argument sounds. “So there’s that.’’

While we all mull it over (and maybe pop a couple of aspirin), Jones will be gearing up for his next challenge. Who knows, maybe it will end up being “Mute,’’ a Berlin-set “love letter to ‘Blade Runner’ ’’ that he wrote and pitched to Sam Rockwell, only to make “Moon’’ with him, and then to Gyllenhaal, only to make “Source Code.’’ (Jones has already paid homage to the sci-fi landmark, in a student-competition commercial for Kodak that helped launch his initial career in advertising.) “I like to think of ‘Mute’ as my ‘Don Quixote,’ ’’ says Jones, referencing Terry Gilliam’s passion project. “It’s the script that I’ll always want to make, and hopefully will — someday.’’ Funny, you’d guess those were also the early prospects for a movie about a guy blowing up eight times on the same train.

Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.

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