A Guide to Mute Director Duncan Jones
Over the course of the past decade and then some, filmmaker Duncan Jones has become one of the most sought-out genre directors in Hollywood, after making a big splash in 2009 with his throwback sci-fi film Moon. Since then he has directed three additional features, the latest of which, Mute, is now streaming on Netflix. In celebration, some of us at TFS have gone back and revisited Jones’ previous three films (Moon, Source Code, Warcraft), to see how they each stand out in the director’s larger body of work.
Duncan Jones’s debut feature is a deceptively simple science fiction story, dealing with matters of identity and how we perceive ourselves in our own minds. The masterful execution is all in the details, which Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker allow to remain details—how the characters approach a piece of clothing or a ping pong table tells us just as much as if they were talking out loud.
Setting Moon apart just as much as that attention to detail is the performance by Sam Rockwell, who plays several parts, all interacting with himself in most of his scenes.
Sam Bell (Rockwell) is an isolated miner on the dark side of Earth’s moon, extracting materials that power countries below through a passed energy crisis. He works his days alone, counting off each as he grows closer to the end of his contract with mining company. Sam longingly studies photos of a daughter he’s never met, even joking that for all he knows, “she could be the mailman’s,” but his love for her is there in every look, and in how much care he puts into keeping the photo safe.
Sam’s only contact with the world below him is in one-way videos from the company and his wife, who talks of the daughter he’s never seen as though she’s growing more and more each day he’s out alone on the moon. His routine is fairly regulated: wake up, eat, exercise, work, run through system checks, sleep. Wake up, eat, exercise, work, run through system checks, sleep. Wake up, eat, exercise, work, run through system checks, crash a lander and pass out. Wake up, eat—wait, what?
GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), the station’s AI assistant, wakes Sam up, telling him he was in an accident, and that GERTY got him back to the station. He wasn’t out long, but just to make sure, some tests will be run to check his neurological function, memory, and hand-eye coordination. Sam’s body is a little stiff, and he’s quite weak on waking, but otherwise seems fine. But Sam notices that the module he checked is still unfixed, and ventures toward the rover bay to fix it—his exo suit is missing. Oh, it’s on the other side, and cleaner. Must’ve been the bump to his head.
Driving out to the module he meant to repair, Sam comes across…another rover. It’s crashed, too. Sam ignores GERTY’s concerns for his safety and ventures inside to check on the pilot, finding…Sam Bell, very injured, but alive. Healthy Sam and Injured Sam get back to the station, and GERTY gets to work on fixing up Injured Sam. Meanwhile, a very personal-level story about what makes someone “them” is put into motion, full of perfectly human responses to the kind of dissonance that comes from looking at another person and only seeing…you.
The level of detail and the attention paid to it, which I mentioned above, really come into play in this second act. The two Sams each approach the problem of “what is going on here” differently, based on their ability to address it—Injured Sam fittingly works within, while Healthy Sam ventures back out into the lunar landscape for answers. Injured Sam fixates on what little of a town model his broken arms can reach, and on perfecting the smaller details that he can, while Healthy Sam practically gets cabin fever, cooped up with another person who is also himself, as he searches for something to do, something to fix. Healthy Sam obsesses over the net on the ping pong table, fixates on minutiae around the station, jumping from job to job.
Healthy Sam’s impulsivity only provides part of the full picture, here, too— Healthy Sam discovers jammers preventing outgoing messages from the station, but it’s Injured Sam’s thoughtful logic problem approach to GERTY’s command and response syntax that reveals just how deep this rabbit hole goes.
It’s to Jones’s credit that both of the versions of Sam we spend the bulk of the film with are not just different characters in name, but in how the story and his direction treat them. Rockwell brings a lot of small personality tics to the table for both Sams, but Jones steeps those choices as much in their shared, implanted memories as he does their unshared, discrete experiences. Injured Sam is reluctant to take much action, as he knows he won’t be very capable in his current state, so focuses on the problem at hand with his mind. Healthy Sam is active enough for both of them, reflecting the life Injured Sam can feel leaving him (and also slyly hinting at the possibility of how much life Sam as a person overall may have to address in the film). Their coming together, in body and mind, is what allows them the cleverness required to succeed in their ultimate shared goal in Moon, and it’s all the more poignant for it.
- Sean Beattie
Source Code (2011)
Ever since Groundhog Day was released in 1993, there have been several movies taking the basic conceit of that classic and adapting it to a different genre. One of the most successful of these was Duncan Jones’ sophomore feature, Source Code. Which takes the time loop concept and applies it to a Hitchcockian, sci-fi thriller. After Moon, Duncan Jones became a highly sought after talent. In the end it was Jake Gyllenhaal who made the first move when he secured Jones for the film; actively lobbying the studio to hire him to direct an original script by Ben Ripley.
Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, a US Army helicopter pilot who wakes up on a commuter train headed toward Chicago. The last thing he remembers is flying a mission gone wrong in Afghanistan. When the woman sitting across from him Christina (Michelle Monaghan) calls him Sean, he begins to panic as he realizes he is inhabiting the body of a teacher named Sean Fentress, Quantum Leap style. Once he begins to come to terms with this impossible situation… the train explodes. He instantly wakes up in a capsule with Captain Goodwin (the always great Vera Farmiga) talking to him on a monitor. At first he believes it’s a simulation but Goodwin later explains that a military scientist Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) developed a machine that allows someone to experience the last eight minutes of another person’s life in an alternate timeline.
The plan is to have Colter discover who the bomber is before he can strike again. This results in a highly entertaining and intense second act where he is exhaustively taking different approaches to the events in order to crack the case. In this way Source Code is a bit of a video game movie, but in the most positive terms.
This sort of movie lives and dies on the shoulders of its lead. If the audience is going to see a variation on the same events again and again, they need a talented and committed actor to carry them through. Jake Gyllenhaal is more than up to the task here as he sells both the confidence and desperation of Colter wonderfully. The supporting turns are strong as well. Michelle Monaghan gives yet another charming performance, Farmiga’s shift from seemingly cold authority figure to empathetic partner is very impressive, and Wright’s scenery chewing turn is one to remember. The connections to Quantum Leap do not end with the idea of inhabiting someone’s life in the past, as Sam Beckett himself, Scott Bakula, has a brief but deeply effective cameo as Colter’s father.
Duncan Jones’ skills in creating tension, character development, and world building that he demonstrated in Moon are no less evident in Source Code. In terms of pacing, this movie is very near to the platonic ideal of an action-thriller. It is 90 minutes long, including credits, and there’s not an ounce of fat on the picture. Thanks to the assured work of Jones and Gyllenhaal it’s easy to accept the rules of this world, even though there are some (admittedly minor) logic issues on the page.
As the film progresses, it’s revealed that Cpt. Stevens was for all intents and purposes killed in Afghanistan but that they were able to keep his brain active enough to use the machine. This opens up a fairly powerful thematic thread about military service and what is asked of men and women in uniform. Colter wants be allowed to die because, as he puts it, “[…]one death is service enough.” Rutledge is prepared to wipe his memory once this mission is complete and keep Stevens running these missions as long as his synapses are firing.
Source Code has an ending that more than likely causes some to groan, but for this writer who prefers their sci-fi with a healthy dose of humanistic optimism it’s a beautiful one. And one that fits in perfectly with the themes of the piece. This is an efficient and thrilling film that confirmed Jones as a talent to watch.
- Sam Van Haren
Based on the video game series of the same name, Warcraft is Duncan Jones’ first blockbuster. The director’s passion for the video game series is stitched onto his sleeve as he pulls from mountains of lore and overviews of themes.
Warcraft follows the game series’ trajectory of looking at multiple angles of a conflict, with heroes and villains on both sides. All the war mongering and political intrigue are surrounded by goofy costumes, lavish environments and exaggerated fantasy in the mystical land of Azeroth. Humans, dwarves and elves all live together and fight off a horde of Orc invaders from another world.
If there was an award for Most Accurate Adaptation, Warcraft would be an easy winner. There is even a Murloc roar in an establishing shot. “What is a Murloc?” an ordinary viewer may ask… And therein lies the main issue with Warcraft. It is too niche.
Nowhere near as bad its reputation, Warcraft lies beholden to an abundance of lore from the original game series. Then again, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies tossed plenty of bamboozling words at the audience and no one seemed to have a problem there. There are griffins and bizarre blue magics. There are also green magics, called Fel, that make people go crazy and turn into demons or something. I’ve played every game in the series and even I missed a beat on that one.
That being said, even the filmmaking can feel strained at times. Nearly every scene is competing for exposition or a swashbuckling adventure attitude. The camera is a little too stationary even in dialogue scenes, furthermore conflicting with the upbeat nature of the human side of the story.
The orcs fare much better, as is tradition in all iterations of this series, as the political maneuvering and tragedy of the dimensional refugees makes them easy to sympathize with. The orcs daren’t strapped to our reality as other interpretations of the fantasy race would be in The Hobbit films, rather Jones embraced the ludicrous nature of their video game counterparts and presents us with some pretty compelling performance capture characters.
Where the humans falter in their relatability, the Orcs are allowed more moments to simply exist in their world and discuss the drastic paradigm shift in nature this upcoming war will cause. It’s a 150 million dollar blockbuster that is about cultures going to war because of prejudice, lack of communication and how even with a world at war, the next generation can always do better.
Not long before Warcraft was released, Duncan Jones had just lost his father and became one himself. He was fighting to keep his artistic voice at a level of moviemaking that has chewed up and spit out more creatives than it has allowed to flourish. Warcraft remains a quality adaptation of one of the more cinematic friendly video game series but it will always be worth appreciating as a true testament to Duncan Jones’ enormous compassion for storytelling and humanity in all walks of life.
- Diego Crespo