Film director Duncan Jones has developed a knack for sci-fi movies with mind-blowing twists, such as "Moon" and the just-released sci-fi thriller "Source Code." Just as "Moon" is more than a space movie, "Source Code" is more than a time-travel movie — but explaining why would totally give away the mind-blowing twist.
Let's just leave it at this: A combat vet is brought in to relive the last eight minutes leading up to a terrorist bombing of a train ... over and over again, a la "Groundhog Day." As in the Bill Murray movie, the main character (Jake Gyllenhaal) eventually learns how the time-recycling code works. The twisty plot draws upon a grab bag of speculative ideas from neuroscience, artificial intelligence and quantum physics, including:
- Near-death experiences: Brain activity continues even after the heart stops beating, and that may explain the out-of-this-world experiences that many people have reported when they're close to death's door.
- Neural reverse engineering: Some futurists suggest that computers will become advanced enough by the year 2045 to replicate the activity of the human brain. "People like Ray Kurzweil have suggested that one day, if we can actually map out the human brain and how it works, we could take one person's consciousness and transport it into another's," Jordan Wynn, the producer of "Source Code," says in the video clip above.
- Alternate realities: If you could travel back in time, could you make a course correction? Some physicists (such as Sean Carroll) say the flow of events from the past into the future is immutable, while others (such as Michio Kaku) say quantum physics allows for alternate realities. "We physicists believe that the river of time can fork into two rivers," Kaku said.
- Virtual reality: The tools for interacting with virtual worlds are getting better and better. "Within a few decades, we'll have workers, controlled by people with helmets, performing dangerous tasks — maybe at some point even extracting information from the parallel universe," Kaku said.
- Phantom consciousness: The brain can latch onto whole-body simulations so completely that it feels as if you are the simulation. That's the idea behind the "Matrix" movies, but it's also been tested in a series of experiments that led human subjects to feel as if they had three arms.
In the film, all these threads are woven together into a military research program called "Source Code."
But there's such a thing as too much science in science fiction: When Duncan Jones took on the project, he trimmed back the screenplay's geek factor, and emphasized the action and the interplay of characters instead. "I thought that if it was taken too seriously, and we dedicated too much time to the science, it would detract from the film's rip-roaring ride," the 39-year-old director told Time Out London. "So the rewriting I did was mostly to do with the tone."
Will "Source Code," with a Hollywood-sized budget of $35 million, make as much of an impact as "Moon," with an indie-sized budget of $5 million? That's something that time and the box-office tally will decide. But it's already clear that Jones, the son of rock star David Bowie, is finally in the spotlight on his own. Jones was named Zowie Bowie at birth, but he changed his name to distinguish himself from his dad (and maybe cut down on the snickers over being called "Zowie").
Jonathan Wenk / Summit Entertainment
"Source Code" director Duncan Jones (center) works with Jake Gyllenhall and Michelle Monaghan while filming a scene.
In an interview this week, Jones reflected on his past, present and future sci-fi movies as well as the Bowie factor. Here's an edited transcript:
Cosmic Log: Between this movie and "Moon," you're making a name for yourself as someone who takes on weird science-fiction concepts and turns them into watchable movies. How do you make the science just understandable enough to work?
Duncan Jones: For me, science-fiction movies are divided into two camps: hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi. With hard sci-fi, when you can see how the world can evolve into the science-fiction setting, sometimes it's useful to find ways to explain and put in that exposition, so the audience can really see how the world might change. But when you're into soft sci-fi, or in a gray area in between ... and I think time travel and those kinds of stories do fit in that gray area ... it's much more important that you ask the audience to take a leap of faith. You say, "Here are the rules we're going to set up. We'll play fair by those," and you just kind of leap on board.
In "Source Code," we manage to inject humor into the script and keep the tone light, and I think that allows the audience to feel OK about just accepting the rules and going along with it.
Q: Were there ideas you brought to the table thanks to your own familiarity with science-fiction themes, or scientific concepts you've absorbed through the years?
A: There was a certain amount of trying to create a realistic scenario ... whether it's the DARPA program or some other program in the Department of Defense, where you would imagine that this is a program that they don't necessarily fully believe in, but they want to see whether it's possible. They would invest a certain amount of money and give a professor some space and some financing to see whether it would actually work. My approach in the film was to treat the "Source Code" almost like high-end graduate-level work. It's a temporary facility, and if they prove themselves and it actually works, then all of a sudden they're going to get a huge infusion of Defense Department cash and be able to set up a facility that's specifically for "Source Code."
Q: As you were making the movie, are there books that you read or experiences that you had to give you a sense of how that science is done?
A: Ben Ripley [the screenwriter] was the one who did a lot more research on that end. I believe his wife is a scientist. He's surrounded by that world. On my side, I was a graduate student in philosophy, so I'm not really that close to the sciences. The work that I was doing in graduate school was on something called the mind-body problem, the idea of "what is consciousness." Whether it's a material thing, or whether there's anything beyond that. So a lot of the people I was dealing with were working in clinical psychology, for example. Some of them were working on direct brain manipulation with primates. Not in anticipation of this film, but in my past life, I had a sense of what works in graduate programs when it comes to brain studies.
Q: That's one of the most intriguing aspects of the film ... whether you can map the information from someone's brain into somebody else's brain. As a former philosophy student, or as a film director, do you have any thoughts on that subject?
A: The Directors Guild of America has recently been running a series of panels and lectures presented by scientists from various branches, to talk about the state of the art in their own disciplines. It's been incredibly fascinating and a real revelation to me, how many of the things that might at first appear to be science fiction are, if not actually happening, certainly being brought closer to reality.
I'm sure you've read about the retinal implant that allows a 60-pixel image to be seen by someone who was previously completely blind, allowing them to read and see movement in front of them. There's robotics work that has allowed a scientific program to replicate the movement of a lungfish through water, using electrical impulses to sense where prey might be around them. There's another program about a beetle that goes through metamorphosis, and when the bug finishes metamorphosizing, scientists can remote-control the beetle's flight around the room. The science fiction in our film is certainly incredibly exciting, and a great concept for a movie, but who knows how close we are to some of the ideas that we talk about?
A combat vet (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes on an unorthodox counterterrorism assignment in the film "Source Code."
Q: In "Moon," the plot gets inside the main character's head, but the movie felt as if it had a realistic outcome. "Source Code" goes farther into the speculative sphere. Nobody wants to give the plot away, but there's a big twist. How do you deal with those big twists? Or do you put the science aside and say it just feels right dramatically?
A: It's funny, because although "Moon" is more science-fiction in some ways ... it's based on the far side of the moon in the future, while "Source Code" is contemporary ... in other ways it's more hard sci-fi. "Moon" is based on Robert Zubrin's book, "Entering Space," all about how helium-3 mining might hypothetically work, and why one might want to acquire helium-3 in the first place, for fusion reactors. In my mind, "Moon" is based on a much more concrete foundation scientifically.
For "Source Code," Ben Ripley did a lot of the research himself. And without getting too much into spoiler territory, I think the nature of ... not so much time travel, but travel into parallel realities is something which is hypothetically very interesting. It certainly has its own rules which it abides by. Now, whether that theory is justified ... that's a question. With "Moon," you can see how science could get us to the point where we would be mining helium on the moon. With "Source Code," the movie demands that you take this theory seriously and believe that access to parallel realities is possible.
Q: I've read that you have another science-fiction project that you're thinking about. Could you say something about that?
A: I am writing what I'm hoping is going to be my next film, and it's a science-fiction film. It's more hard sci-fi in some ways, but it's very heavy on the action. I'm trying to invest it with the same level of believability as the early James Cameron works. You look at something like "Aliens," where you get a sense of how the mechanics of that world works. I can't say much about it, except that it's a good middle ground between "Source Code" and "Moon."
Q: Any recommended reading for fans who want to get ready for the film?
A: It certainly fits within the world of Philip K. Dick. He and J.G. Ballard are probably the two authors who have most excited me in my science-fiction reading throughout my life, and it's always been my dream to actually make a film that captures the essence of what I love about those two particular writers.
Q: How is life after "Moon"?
A: There really hasn't been much opportunity for me to get a sense of how everything changed, because literally off the tail end of the press that I was doing for "Moon," I found myself having to immediately go up to Montreal to begin work on "Source Code." I moved to Los Angeles to complete the post-production, and ever since I've been working on the release of "Source Code." I'm only just now getting to the point where I'm getting a sense of what it all means.
Q: And finally, let's talk about the David Bowie question. It seems as if you are coming out of the shadow cast by your famous father. How do you feel about that? Do you feel that you're finally being taken seriously as your own person, or do you feel that you really want to hang onto that connection with what your father has done?
A: I think I'm getting there. Hopefully I'll get to the point where it's an interesting fact, but not the focus of any interview or article about what I'm doing. I completely get it. I understand why it is of interest. But I look forward to the day when I get to remind people who my dad is.
More about the science in science fiction:
- Why we love to fear E.T.
- The physics behind the movie magic
- Virtual actor takes over in 'Tron'
- How much real science is in 'Avatar'?
- When science meets fiction
Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the "like" button on our Facebook page or by following msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about my book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for "The Case for Pluto."