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SOURCE CODE AND TRANSCENDENT SCIENCE FICTION

Source Code, by new SciFi wunderkind Duncan Jones, delivers the kind of fresh, smart and emotionally engaging cinema experience that can be all too rare in modern feature films, argues Mike Jones, Lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. Is it part of a new tangental sub-genre?

Duncan Jones (no relation) proves that his previous film, Moon, was no anomaly and, along with recent low and modest budget contemporaries such as District 9, Never Let me Go and Monsters, Source Code is part of a new wave of reinvigorated Science Fiction cinema - SciFi that is conceptually and philosophically driven by big ideas not the idea-vacuum of big budgets.

But rather than simply rave about how thoroughly enjoyable Source Code is (and it is!) I would rather explore a little the kind of tangental sub-genre of SciFi that Source Code may represent and which makes it all the more fresh and exciting. 

Friend and colleague in screen studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio School, Matt Campora, has been kicking around some ideas about science fiction and its relationship to both Magic Realism and an exploration of the philosophical beyond science. It is his ideas I’m prompted to pick up and run with a little in considering the kind of scifi that films like Source Code represent.

"of the magical or philosophically spiritual"

What Matt has identified, which I find so fascinating, is a subset - perhaps even a sub-genre - of Science Fiction cinema whereby the narrative begins with an impetus and concept rooted in science and scientific plausibility but which, through story progression, transcends the scientific toward something more recognizable as being of the magical or philosophically spiritual.

This form of science fiction sees the scientifically plausible basis reach such a saturation point or critical mass, that it spills over into a different form altogether. The comparison in this regard might be to Magic Realism. Here the concept of Magic Realism is predicated on an ordinary world grounded in the ‘real’ which is then invaded by a kind of benign magic that upsets reality. Groundhog Day being a prime example where the real world of a small town is disrupted by an unnamed magic power that forces a character to relive a single day over and over until he gets it right. In the Science Fiction relative of this kind of Magic Realist film - what I might for now call Transcendent SciFi - we have a hybrid where the magic takes over when the science ceases to be able to account; when the plausibility runs dry, the magic propels the audience beyond logical constraints. 

Running with Matt’s observation I am reminded of Issac Asimov and his assertion that “any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. When the rationality of a science fiction is transcended we may see or read this as magic, and in theory this should seriously undo our engagement with the SciFi story. Jumping from one genre jarringly to another - genres that are, in concept, diametrically opposed - would likely be enough to condemn any such film to narrative disaster. And yet there is a considerable pattern of SciFi films that seem to do exactly this - build up from scientific basis only to transcend into a philosophically plausible, rather than scientifically plausible, realm. And it is Asimov’s quote above that gives us the key to understanding why these kinds of genre-jumping SciFi films not only work but engage audiences on a profound level. When the science of the fiction moves outside of the sphere we can plausibly see, becomes so advanced that it extends beyond what we can rationally perceive, it becomes indistinguishable from magic.

■2001: a space Odyssey
■Contact
■Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
■Source Code

These are four films where we can see this transcendence taking place - where science propels narrative and character only so far, at which point its logic and rationality are superseded in Asimov’s realm - indistinguishable from magic. 

In Kubrick’s 2001, what proceeds as a plausible projection of humankind’s future exploration (computers, artificial intelligence, space ships and galactic orbits) turns sharply in its final stages as the character is thrust into a spiritual dreamworld where past and present collide. In this final stretch of 2001 the highly plausible and meticulously researched future state of galactic exploration is transcended into a magical world where the viewer is prompted to leave and set aside their plausibly rational mind. The final stages of 2001 offer a world where the logic, rationality and plausible projection the previous two hours were based on is dispensed with by the viewer in exchange for a projection so advanced that it appears as magic and is accepted by the viewer openly and calmly as having its own internal logic removed form our own. Moreover that the ‘rules’ of Kubrick’s SciFi world are now no longer relevant or applicable - the story has transcended its own rules. 

Contact, starring Jodi Foster, a film that deals with the search for extra terrestrial signals from outer space, is likewise a story that fits the literary classification of Hard SciFi - that is science fiction with a firm basis in specific science of the here and now. Yet, as with 2001, the final stages of Contact see our heroine engage an experience that transcends the hard science both the film and her life as an astronomer is predicated on, into something unable to be rationalized by science and which finds a clearer comprehension in the philosophically spiritual and the magical.

"as a stepping stone to a more magical and spiritually transcendent narrative"

On a much more subtle and yet equally profound level, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does much the same thing. From a position of a rational explanation of targeted memory erasure (something scientists have actually been experimenting on recent years) the film simply uses this base as a stepping stone to a more magical and spiritually transcendent narrative. We see this when the memories of Jim Carry’s character take on a kind of self directed agency in his mind and the science-based ‘rules’ the film had previously established for how the selective memory erasure would work are broken by the memories themselves fighting to survive in his mind.

This leads us to Source Code, a film that builds from an extreme - but none the less conceptually plausible - basis to a more philosophically challenging position much like that of Eternal Sunshine. In Source Code the eight minute memory the character is forced to enter, drawn from the mind of a man who had previously died on the bombed train, moves from being a static construct beholden to the scientific logic rules of the SciFi storyworld, to something much more dynamic and inexplicable. Much like all good SciFi films, Source Code goes to considerable lengths to explain to the audience, through the Tabula Rasa (clean slate) of the protagonist and via the Sage archetype of the scientist, the clearly bound rules of how the dead memory science works. Much of the film then plays out wholly within these rules and indeed it is the collision and conformity with the hard confines of the rules that provide dramatic tension.

And yet when the climax comes these hard rules that have made the science fiction of Source Code possible are dispensed with - a world that does not exist is made to exist, an eight minute shadow memory of electrons from a dead brain manifest an entire parallel dream universe beyond logic. Here we have the Asimov conundrum - either what has happened is an extension of science so far outside of the comprehension of audience and character that it appears as magic, or else it simply is magic and the film narrative has transcended science to a more spiritual plane. And in either case it works - wonderfully, delightfully, superbly. 

Once we see this pattern it starts to rear its head all over the genre of science fiction.

■Solaris
■Stalker
■Sunshine
■La Jette
■Slaughterhouse 5
■The Navigator
■Battlestar Galactica
■Minority Report

Once we are in this vein of thinking how a narrative may employ Science Fiction, not as a embodied genre but as a launchpad for a trajectory leading to somewhere quite different, other genres enter the picture. Most readily we might look at Horror as a form often employing the same technique. Horror films that might be simplistically hyphenated as SciFi-Horror might be better understood as those that use a SciFi beginning and impetus as a launch-point for moving the viewer into a super-natural horror from a basis of plausibility. Thus amplifying the scariness by making a thin but tensile connection to the real. In such cases the Science (and scientific transgression) is often the catalyst for unleashing the Magic of the Horror. Stephen King’s TV miniseries The Stand opens with a super-flu virus being released from a government laboratory which wipes out most of the population. But from this highly plausible catastrophe The Stand departs from the science to build its narrative upon the premonition dreams of the survivors and a great supernatural battle between forces of good and evil unleashed by the scientific transgression. In simple terms the science was just a means to an ends to allow the story a base from which to explore supernatural ideas.

"the vital forward vanguard of Science"

What is important is that rather than a rejection or repudiation of science I see this form of Transcendent SciFi, exhibited by Source Code, as a celebration and confirmation of the innately spiritual nature of science itself. The true power of science is its ability to speculate, imagine and see beyond itself - beyond what we know or understand. Science allows us the tools by which to see beyond ourselves and more petty and selfish natures. As Einstein said, “imagination is more important than knowledge” and as such Science Fiction, if not more important, is certainly the vital forward vanguard of Science. 

[This article was posted on May 27, 2011 on Mike Jones.tv and is reproduced with his kind permission.]

Published June 2, 2011

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