This editorial contains spoilers for Source Code and Moon. If you haven’t seen the movies yet, go check it out first before diving in.
When I watched Duncan Jones’s sophomore effort Source Code, I couldn’t help but think about how much it resembles, nearly beat for beat in its structure, his first film Moon. This is not necessarily a criticism of Source Code or Jones, as repeated thematic occupations and narrative revisitation can be the sign of the auteur, and I’ve enjoyed both his films. But the films are, admittedly, structurally identical in several ways.
Both involve a lone protagonist who discovers something unexpected about their identity that changes their relationship to their given tasks (Sam Bell realizing he is a clone in Moon, Captain Colter Stevens’s “near-death” state in Source Code), and combat some form of repression against a bureaucratic organizational body (a private corporation in Moon, military scientists in Source Code) while being assisted by an empathetic, benevolent subordinate of that organization (GERTY the robot in Moon, Vera Famiga’s Captain Goodwin in Source Code). But it is rather appropriate that both of Jones’s films be so structurally similar, for the major themes connecting them, and the narratives by which those themes are exercised, are enveloped in the topic of the repetitive structures of everyday life.
The Structures of Everyday Life
In social and cultural theory, the topic of “everyday life” has become a subject of both major conversation and contention. It is perhaps one of the more difficult yet paradoxically obvious topics to focus on, for it requires a critical gaze toward those activities that we take for granted and go about unthinkingly. Everyday life is typically thought of as infinitely repetitive and cyclical, consisting of tasks that do not progress toward some goal, but are instead unavoidably and essentially redundant (e.g., washing dishes, laundry, grocery shopping).
The “everyday” is thus contrasted with the “linear” structure of other aspects of life: meaningful or inventive work, for instance, which has an “end goal” of sorts in mind. Critics like Henri Levebvre, Michel de Certeau, and Rita Felski have intervened into this dichotomy and argued that this notion of “everyday life” vs. “linear life” is too simplistic. They posit instead that the relationship between the two is fluid and mutually dependent. It is through the linear that we understand the everyday, and vice versa. This slippage between everyday life and linear life is explored in great depth in the work of Duncan Jones thus far.
Science fiction, along with other “high genre” categories, is typically thought of as a genre that explores the exceptional and the fantastic, or the limits of human imagination. Jones’s films are unique in that he explores a fascinating intersection between the mundane and familiar (“the everyday”) within the narrative signs of “exceptionality” that typically characterizes the genre.
In Moon, for instance, the basic assumption going into the film – that we’ve found ways to harvest resources on the moon – provides an exceptional basic framework and is thus fitting for science-fiction. But what makes Moon interesting is that it doesn’t begin from the exciting “moment” of exceptionality and invention (the realization of how to use the resources) and instead starts several years after this practice has become the norm, introducing us to a character through his engagement in repetitive activities of the mundane: his everyday.
Sam Rockwell’s Sam Bell runs his life on the moon through routine. Though his mission (ostensibly) has a 3-year contract, he survives by repetition: working out, eating, checking in with his base, cutting his hair, etc. Moon thus shows how the “exceptional,” or the product of “linear” life, becomes part of the everyday. The dishwasher, by analogy, was an once an exciting object of invention, but is now a mundane object taken for granted through everyday use. Likewise, Bell’s life might be exceptional to some, but it is routine for him. The inventions of linear life simply invent new everyday practices.
However, it is when the everyday is disrupted that we look at it differently. When Bell realizes that he is simply a clone of an identical human original that is on earth, the nature of his everyday tasks no longer contain the same meaning (or even become meaningless), for because he is not human his priorities, and the assumptions within his everyday tasks that inform those priorities (the idea that there will be an “end” to these tasks) are no longer the same. The “everyday,” then, is revealed to be a ruse, and he can only win against the structures of everyday life by breaking the pattern (i.e., going to Earth to uncover what Lunar Industries has done).
What’s interesting about Moon with respect to these ideas is that the film literalizes the redundant nature of the everyday through the revelation of “cloning.” Not only is Bell’s life characterized by redundancy, he is a redundancy. But between the mundane nature that invention eventually endures and the repetitive nature of some aspects of invention (that cloning is both exceptional and repetitive), the crisis Bell experiences is, in part, a crisis encountered by a blurring between the everyday and the linear.
Where Moon disrupts the meaning of the everyday through a revelation that changes its meaning, Source Code is suspicious of the everyday from its outset. Its central conceit involves the interruption of routine: the mundane, unthinking, taken-for-granted nature of the daily commute is interrupted by the explosion of a terrorist’s bomb. Concurrently, in Stevens’s “first” venture into the Source Code at the film’s beginning, the ostensibly “everyday” and “familiar” aspects of a daily commute become alien by virtue of the fact that they are unrecognizable to him. His surroundings themselves are not unusual, but because they are not part of his routine, or his familiar banalities of life, they are unusual, exceptional, and distressing. Thus, the composition of everyday life is relative. And by the time the first explosion occurs, it’s clear that activities characteristic of the everyday can be interrupted, and thus become recounted differently by the intervention of the exceptional (in other words, these everyday moments become more meaningful because they are the “last” everyday moments for the passengers).
As in Moon, in Source Code the linearity of invention and the redundancy of the everyday collapse into one another. Dr. Rutledge’s invention is exceptional and one-of-a-kind, but it is implemented through repetition. Through that repetition, Stevens not only becomes familiar with his surroundings that make up the routine of the man whose consciousness he inhabits, but with the smaller redundancies within the larger structures. The opening of the coke can, the coffee spill, the disgruntled passenger all become routine – and even the exceptional event of a bomb explosion becomes routine by virtue of the fact that it gets repeated, thus changing its very “exceptionality.”
Yet at the same time one can make progress through the practices and structures of the everyday, and by the virtue of repetition that is essential to the everyday. Stevens is finally able to find the bomb, then identify the culprit, then capture the culprit and save the passengers because of the familiarity and repetition permitted through the source code. Within the everyday, linear invention is not only possible, but is the essential means by which it can take place. And, in a way analogous to Moon, the only way to escape these redundancies is to eventually break the pattern through this very process.
Just like his characters, Jones and his writers seem to be using routine itself to explore new genre territory, which becomes evident in the fact that his two features are both very similar yet at the same time inventive. They speak to past entries in the genre (and other kinds of films and media) as well, building off the different repetitive or linear structures in those films (Moon, for instance, references both 2001 and Solaris, films I would characterize as engaged with exploring the processes of linearity and repetition, respectively, while Source Code calls back to the explicitly repetitive structures of Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap, the linear structure of Avatar, and the hybrid structures of 12 Monkeys and La Jetee).
Thus, Jones’s films are hybrids in both narrative and theme – both episodic and linear, repetitive and progressive – and this makes for a brand of science fiction that’s interesting and perplexing precisely because it is relatable to everyday life.