Is America living in the real world? Not to judge by its recent cinema. If you believe that Hollywood's output is a gauge of the US psyche, then it seems it's running scared from the rigours of reality. Look at how many recent mainstream films are fantasy escapes from powerlessness. The Adjustment Bureau is about a world in which people have their strings pulled by shadowy forces "scripting" their fates; Limitless wishes life's difficulties could be overcome through a magical superdrug.
Look also at how many dramas take place in people's heads, in states of hallucination: Inception, Shutter Island and now Source Code and Sucker Punch. All these films, good or bad, dramatise a despairing retreat from the real – as if actual challenges can never be faced except in the realm of the imagination. Such stories, in which human agency seems possible only on a fantasy level, bespeak a mood of national impotence – hardly surprising in a time of war and financial disempowerment. The wave of Obama-era cinema predicted only two years ago never happened: the message of these films is, "Yes We Can – but only in our dreams."
Two new films fit the pattern. The one that offers some real interest and entertainment is Source Code, a science-fiction thriller that British director Duncan Jones has made as the follow-up to his debut Moon. A man (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up bewildered on a train, having seemingly woken in the middle of someone else's story. It turns out that he – Captain Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot – is really enclosed in a sort of pod, while a woman on a screen (Vera Farmiga) keeps sending him back to the train to identify the person who's planted a bomb on it. After the bomb explodes, Stevens is sent back, again and again, to try to stop history in its tracks. Each time, Groundhog Day-style, he goes through the same series of events; each time, things play out a little differently.
This simple premise is exactly like a computer game – each round, as it were, Stevens has exactly eight minutes to achieve his goal. Don't worry about the science – "It's complicated," murmurs Jeffrey Wright's chief boffin – but the efficiency of the story telling is enough to win you over. I can't remember when I last saw a film so ruthlessly cut-to-the-chase – I can actually imagine the script reading: "He turns. They kiss. The train explodes." But, once you get into the further ramifications (Stevens's identity crisis, the increasingly byzantine time-warp chicanery), Ben Ripley's script is a little too Möbius-strip tangled for comfort.
Following Moon's classy economy, it's hard to know where Source Code is taking Duncan Jones – whether he'll become an impersonally proficient genre hand, or develop into a true B-movie auteur. Source Code still feels distinctive: like Moon, it has a hero who isn't what he seems to be, and who is at once caught up in a drama and suspended in isolation. And there's a nice in-joke about Moon's Chesney Hawkes gag.
Pros include the rattling pace, a solid Farmiga, and the reliably likeable Michelle Monaghan, although she's nowhere near as spiky as she can sometimes be. Cons include a wooden Gyllenhaal, and Jeffrey Wright going seriously overboard, playing the technocrat as God-like (or rather, Orson Welles-like) director.
Like other films in this current fantasy wave, Source Code ends strangely, mixing triumph with a very bitter sense of defeat, as we take in the implications of its relation to the real. All that its hero experiences is ultimately played out in his mind: like the mass hallucination imagined in The Matrix, it's what philosophers call a "brain in a vat" scenario. Another such dream drama is Sucker Punch, the bloated new offering by Zack Snyder, whose 300 was a masterpiece of pulp over-statement, and whose take on Watchmen was at least nobly ambitious. But Snyder himself now seems to be labouring under the delusion that he's a visionary genius, because Sucker Punch is the ugliest, most self-indulgent folly imaginable.
Its premise is simple – young women in teeny-tiny skirts battle robots and zombies. But there's more: like Inception, Sucker Punch takes place down a deepening abyss of imagination. Its heroine – Baby Doll, if you please, played by the blankly pouting Emily Browning – has been incarcerated by a wicked stepfather in a "Hospital for the" (wait for it) "Mentally Insane". Awaiting lobotomy, she escapes into a dream world in which she's imprisoned in a luxury brothel where inmates enact outré fantasies (including a mental hospital scenario) for their clientele. Baby Doll, it turns out, does a special kind of alluring dance – although we never see it, for every time she performs it, she's catapulted into an alternative universe in which she's a ninja warrior on a mission to find five vital objects. One of them, you hope in vain, will be a script.
Sucker Punch is a monument of crassness – a live-action anime culled from early Britney videos, something like a Shutter Island for catwalk models and jointly scripted by the Marquis de Sade, Tarantino and Bertolt Brecht, all experiencing off-days as a result of magic-mushroom poisoning. The action is relentless, brilliantly designed, and yet stultifyingly repetitive, not to say derivative. There's something horribly claustrophobic about the mock-Gothic mood and murky palette, and I suspect the fantasy-within-a-fantasy premise will be too morbidly weird to appeal to the average teenage fanboy.
The whole thing comes across as a very expensive hymn to Emily Browning's thighs, and the Dickensian bashing of hapless waifs – not to mention the Barbiefication of a talented actress like Abbie Cornish – is creepy beyond belief. I wouldn't be surprised if this film did for Snyder what Speed Racer did for the Wachowski brothers, and deal the sucker punch to his career.
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