Duncan Jones knows how to work within his means. Probably the most popular director that you’ve never heard of, Jones has built a strong cult following through his acclaimed sci-fi features Moon and Source Code (as well as his highly entertaining Twitter account). The two films are connected in more ways than one, all of which display Jones’s great ability to turn restriction into compelling narrative – his sci-fi is far more concerned with concepts and characters than it is with special effects and action. This isn’t to say that Jones’ films aren’t entertaining for the eyes as well. Moon finds plenty of serenity and sci-fi cleanliness in its outer space location; and Source Code, for all its headiness and tragedy, is a funny, concise and extremely entertaining thriller with almost videogame-like sensibilities (which is appropriate as Jones has since adapted one of the biggest videogames of all time for the big screen).
The budget of Duncan Jones’ debut feature film Moon seemed almost inconsequential – the film circumvents possible difficulties of creating low-budget, high-ambition sci-fi by leaning into the roots of the film genre; scale models of lunar rovers replace digital enhancement, the clean and white aesthetic of the lunar base is simple yet fits in perfectly with both modern sci-fi sensibilities and the more industrial approach of the genre’s landmark films such as Alien or 2001. In fact, Jones rather smartly depends on the audience’s genre awareness in the character of GERTY (voiced by a humorously monotone Kevin Spacey), the Lunar Base’s artificial intelligence that essentially uses emoticons to communicate its mood.
The character’s design is reminiscent of HAL 9000, and shares a similar reluctance to share information and perhaps a little too much concern as to where the main character Sam Bell (an excellent Sam Rockwell) goes within the base. Jones purposefully uses the similarities to create an expectation of a second version of HAL, instead delivering the twist that GERTY is genuine, with a selfless desire to help Sam. The pleasant surprise is much needed, and turns a potentially downer anti-corporate film into a film about hope and individual worth – Sam is no less valued by GERTY due to his apparent status as a corporate resource. Jones’ optimism – through GERTY, and the tone and endings of both Source Code and Moon is infectious. Source Code is an outright rejection of cynicism – the villain believes that things must get worse to get better, Jones and his protagonist outright disagree. In an age where it can appear more artful to be a pessimist, Jones gives the audience hope while refraining from falling into saccharine sweetness.
One of the key differences between Kubrick’s work and Jones’, in the execution of this artificial intelligence, is a sense of optimism. Both Moon and Source Code are notable for their highly optimistic tone in the face of extreme adversity. The conclusions of both narratives take joy in seeing the little guy succeeding in the most adverse conditions: Sam realizing that his life is constructed by his employer and that it isn’t even that long in Moon, and Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) playing a similar role of institutional pawn in Source Code. Colter’s optimism, much like that of Sam 1 in Moon, is a key part of Source Code – his dealing with his ‘death’ and both the feeling of futility set upon him by the military faction controlling him shapes the character’s course across the film. His victory happens right in the final bittersweet moments of the film, his optimism and beliefs about the nature of the ‘source code’ finally being validated as he completes his personal mission.
What makes the films of Duncan Jones stand apart from a lot of indie sci-fi is his expert use of both the restrictive and somewhat fantastical settings of his works to tell surprisingly moving tales of isolation and individuality. Source Code takes its concept, that the military have the ability to repeatedly project protagonist Colter into the final 8 minutes of a different man’s life. In Moon, Duncan Jones takes Sam’s set routine and absolute belief in how his life works, and then blows it up with the fact that he is not at all unique, and that there is no one else in his life other than the base’s artificial intelligence. The two films work on outlandish concepts to explore their protagonists, Jones proving an expert at placing us in the mindset of his characters – the opening 5 minutes of Moon are filled with monotony, oppressive isolation and false corporate promises, while Source Code just goes ahead and drops us in the thick of the action, bewildering the audience as much as Colter as he attempts to get his bearings.
Duncan Jones’ sci-fi is not done for the promise of dazzling effects or set pieces, but, in the tradition of hard science fiction, he explores the consequences of the fictional technological change in detail, and uses it to comment on contemporary issues – Moon questioning corporate ideals, Source Code doing the same for the military. In a very telling moment in the latter, the head of the program throws the patriotic sentiment of most men being honoured to die for their country in Colter’s face. His films are simultaneously thrilling and thoughtful, blending action and postmodern sci-fi references with actual meaning and emotion; never letting any elements of the film go to waste.