With the 1936 film Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin introduced a witty, scathing take on the effects of mass technology, and indeed, the type of life we forge with it has become a central preoccupation to our modern world. Film remains at the forefront of this conversation, not only for the speed and power of its own innovations, but also for its ability to provoke us to think. Plenty of films explore tech, but especially since the digital revolution, the theme of media enhanced surveillance often crops up. We decided to take a look a few recent films with their own distinctive take on tech and what it means these days to be watching and interacting with each other.
A strange thing happened in Hollywood in the 1990s. People who noticed pointed to films like Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The Usual Suspects (1995) and began to talk about the mind-game film. Movies, like David Fincher’s malicious psycho-benders Se7en (1995), The Game (1997) and Fight Club (1999) started to “play with the audience’s minds” and leave them puzzled over a disturbing ending. Fincher’s movies are the simplest and most repetitive type of mind-game film. The good ones, like Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2001) or Alejandro Iñárritu’s 21 grams (2010) pit cinema’s grand illusion against itself and open our eyes to how odd perception truly is.
Mind-game films are old school now, with the emergence of a next-gen “video-game film” in two Hollywood action blockbusters: Duncan Jones’s Source Code (2011) and Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow (2014). Both films use game replay in complex ways, but where Liman gives us a tantalizing mosaic of synchronic “live, die, repeat” sci-fi fantasy action, Jones produces a self-reflexive sci-fi, leery of “the power of the image” to shape perception and identity in a new media surveillance society.
Source Code tells a New Age tale of the journey of Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), an American helicopter pilot, whose lower body was ripped to shreds in the Afghanistan war. He is kept alive in an incubator to serve a virtual “second tour of duty” in the Source Code program for a military anti-terrorist unit called Beleaguered Castle. The scientist who invented the Source Code (Jeffrey Wright) uses “quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus” to zap Stevens’s consciousness into a virtual world created by an 8-minute memory bank extracted from the mind of a teacher, Sean Fentress, who died in a Chicago train bombing. Stevens cum Fentress is able to operate freely in this 8-minute virtual world, repeat it as often as necessary, and learn from each repetition. His mission, which he is forced to play over and over again as he fails and fails and fails, is anti-terrorism reconnaissance. He needs to find out who planted the bomb on the train so as to head off an even more disastrous nuclear attack on Chicago planned for later the same day. His mission is overseen by Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga).
The story begins with Stevens waking up on the train bound for Chicago. A girl, Christina (Michelle Monghan), he has never seen before sits across from him, calls him Shawn and talks to him like she’s his friend. Disoriented, Stevens heads for the washroom and sees a strange face looking back at him in the mirror. A few minutes later, the train blows up, and Stevens finds himself strapped to the seat of a pod that resembles a helicopter. Again disoriented, he observes Goodwin in the pod’s grainy monitor before him. Goodwin bombards him with reorientation protocols and memory tests, and urgently debriefs him about the bomb. At first he thinks he’s in a simulator, but before he even knows where he is or what he’s doing there, Goodwin zaps him back into Fentress’s body, telling him to find the bomb. Eight minutes later, Stevens is blown up again and finds himself back in the pod.
Each time Stevens is jacked back into the train and blown back into his pod, he, and we, follow the bomb’s trace back to the terrorist and learn more about Stevens’s situation at Beleaguered Castle. We also learn about Fentress’s relationship to Christina. Stevens, so predictably, begins to fall in love with Christina, even though she helps him find out that he is practically dead and being used in an experiment that he did not volunteer for. Of course, he finds a quantum solution to save the day, win the girl and escape the virtual world of the Source Code.
Now I did say that Source Code has a predictable plot, but its odd details, elaborate time machinations and quirky metaphysics make it a fun puzzle film to play along with. Stevens is painfully slammed in and out of multiple realities against his wish because, as we know, our Western military-industrial complex needs to draw upon sophisticated data banks and processors in order to maintain global control. Or at least that’s what conspiracy theorists think. Definitely, Source Code is critical of America’s militaristic – let’s call it what it is – Fascist state of exception post 9/11 and the very public and instrumental way in which it “disappears” people into the bowels of its military intelligence and prison systems. But its post-human transformation of Stevens into an involuntary, time-travelling, bionic surveillance system is pure Hollywood.
What’s fascinating about it all is the film’s Buddhist “mind only” philosophy. Is the idea that the mind can shift material reality as a natural process cool or what?! Just how much reality is the way it is for us because of the way we’re conditioned to perceive it, I don’t know, but Stevens eventually figures out how to gently stitch alternate realities together with the help of a simple cell phone call home. This kind of power used to be reserved for extra-terrestrials.
The image of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture at the end of the film is a shocking example of product placement (I won’t tell you for what big telecommunications company) but it provokes a real sense of astonishment over just how embedded in our psyche New Age metaphysics really are. Brazen pop culture aesthetics aside, Source Code is fun, but it is also a provocative contemplation of perception, image and reality.