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Film Essays

I Am the One and Only: Source Code, Moon and Duncan Jones’ Identity Crisis

Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell

[Contains spoilers for Moon]

Moon was a revelation. The indie sci-fi film came out of nowhere, with no budget, and rocked my world. The intimate one-man show was everything a film should be—it was made with an intelligence, affection and care that reflected upon its creator. Just like its belabored and doomed hero Sam Bell, forty-year old director Duncan Jones was facing a major identity shift, at least publically. The emerging director had always been plagued with the perpetual tag, “Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie”. In 2009, however, he became, “Duncan Jones, director of Moon”.

Director Duncan Jones filming Source Code

Source Code, Jones’ second offering, is equally concerned with this issue of identity first explored in the Sam Rockwell-led Moon. Source Code was written by Ben Ripley but displays all of Jones’ already distinctive hallmarks: a “hard sci-fi” concept, an affection for dirt-covered technology, a tight claustrophobia, a hero trapped in an abusive, manipulative system he cannot understand, and said hero facing a fundamental crisis of identity. Basic questions of “who am I?”, “where was I?”, “where am I?” and even, “what am I?” permeate Jones’ quiet, waking dreams, which occasionally transgress into nightmares.  Like our ill-fated astronaut Sam Bell, Jake Gyllenhaal’s fighter-pilot is fighting an unending battle he had no choice in, and wakes to find he’s lost his sense of self along the way.

Source Code begins with Gyllenhaal awaking on a commuter train in Chicago. He doesn’t know why he’s there, why his reflection is unfamiliar, or why the woman across from him is speaking like she knows who he is. “I took your advice,” she coos to the confused Gyllenhaal. “It was very good advice.” As Gyllenhaal tries to make sense of this situation, a soda can opens, a woman spills her coffee on his shoe, and the Chesney Hawkes song “The One and Only” begins to play as his seat-mate’s ringtone. The song, besides being a small ironic gag (as Gyllenhaal is doomed to an infinite number of reality loops) is also its own bit of time travel—it links Source Code directly to Moon through a single passage.

"I am the one and only." Sam Bell's (Sam Rockwell) rude awakening in Moon.

The eight-second piece of song had eaten up an inordinate amount of the budget for the tiny Moon, but Jones insisted upon it. In the situation, it was ironic, it was funny, and it was a little heart-breaking. It had to go in the film. “The cost of that few seconds, of that bit of music, was quite a lot, for eight seconds,” said producer Stuart Fenegan, “So I was trying to encourage Duncan to not want it as much as he did. But he was right and of course it’s incredibly funny.”

At its heart, Moon was about the one and only—Sam Bell—the only man on the moon, the one man powering all of life on Earth. A miner on the moon, sending energy-rich H3 back to Earth, Sam Bell’s job was both dull and vital. As the film opens, he’s finishing his three-year stint on the moon, aching to get back to his wife and kids. But “Sam Bell” was an amalgam of seven different men, each a clone of the original astronaut Sam Bell. As each respective clone exhausts his utility, they are dispatched with the care given to refuse, incinerated and dumped, replaced by an unknowing brother-clone.

The three Sams.

The song occurs first in the beginning of the film as a portent of things to come, and later as a cruel reminder of what has passed. As Sam 6 wakes from to a sickness he’ll never recover from and into the nightmarish knowledge of his own identity, “I am the one and only,” teases him from the alarm clock, a literal rude awakening. Already, Bell knows all too well he’s not the one and only, that he’s number six in a line of thousands; a sleeping army of Sam Bells, waiting to be awakened and fulfill their mission, slaving for a future that isn’t rightly theirs.

“I am the one and only,” taunts Gyllenhaal as well, as he wakes into his working hell. The links to Source Code are numerous and staggering, but this identity crisis is the most powerful one. Without revealing many of the twists of Source Code, it’s possible to say that Gyllenhaal is trapped in a similar system, doing endless work, without a real inkling of who he ‘actually’ is. Unlike Rockwell, Gyllenhaal may be the one and only inside the source code, but the song still haunts our hero. His journey is endless, his work never done and his body cannot be his own. By the end of the film, his life is no longer his own either and he is fighting for a future that inherently cannot be his.

The equally ill-fated journey of Source Code.

Each offering of Jones’ is made with a love of the genre, the material, the actors and the craft itself. Source Code is certainly a much faster, easier film than Moon. It will not wake you up at night worrying for the protagonist (the way Moon did, for me), and it probably won’t move you too deeply, but it’s an impeccably crafted film nonetheless. Source Code still exercises Jones’ concern for the characters and the situation, his interest in the intersection of humanity and technology, and his continuing preoccupation with some of the largest philosophical questions ever posed.

By Britta R. Moline  5/2/11

For more on independent film–
Five Things They Don’t Tell You About the Sundance Film Festival
Four Books on the History of Independent Film in America

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