Duncan Jones: Starman of sci-fi cinema

It is perhaps no surprise that David Bowie’s son shares his fascination for all things futuristic. And this visionary young director has now made two of the most remarkable films of recent years.

John Walsh@johnhenrywalsh
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:29

Space oddness, multiple identities, living in a tin can, fear of madness, puzzled men in queasy solitude and existential despair... if you didn't know Duncan Jones's family background, you could take an educated guess from the subject matter of his films. Can we look at his career and draw parallels with that of his famous dad, David Bowie?

Absolutely. Bowie's fascination with outer space has informed his career both in music and movies (Space Oddity, "Starman", The Man Who Fell to Earth). His chronic fear of insanity (most notably "All the Madmen") can be traced back to the mental instability of his brother, Terry, Duncan's uncle. His public projection has been into a series of heterogeneous personae, from Ziggy and the Duke to Tin Man and Serious Moonlighter. But while Bowie hasn't made a new record in eight years, his son has been busy wowing the film world for the last two.

Has it taken Jones all these years (he's 39) to discover his artistic metier? Or did he need to get his father out of his system to let his own muse flourish?

Moon, released in 2009 to loud acclaim, offered cinemagoers a fabulous conundrum. Sam Rockwell starred as a lonely spaceman mining helium on the moon. His only companion is a robot called Gerty and he wistfully records and listens to messages from his wife on Earth. One day he crashes his rover vehicle and discovers the hurt victim is himself. The two versions of Rockwell's character discover they're both clones, that both are likely to be killed by a "rescue" rocket heading their way, but that one of them can get back to Earth... It was a brain-teasing, ingenious plot. "Though it uses impressive sci-fi trappings to tell its story," said one reviewer, "this is a film about what it means, and takes to be human." It earned back its modest $5m budget in nine weeks and won Jones two Bafta awards.

His second film, Source Code, just out in the UK, continues the sci-fi theme. It's mostly set on a commuter train bound for Chicago and heading for a terrible fate. Eight minutes after US military helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes to find a stranger (Michelle Monaghan) flirting with him, the train is blown up by a terrorist bomb, killing everyone. But Stevens is doomed to revisit the scene again and again, in the consciousness of a passenger, in order to discover the bomb and the bomber. And each time, he gets to know more about the flirtatious woman, and has to narrow down the suspects. It is Harold Ramis's Groundhog Day meets Hitchcock's North by Northwest, in which Cary Grant meets a mysterious blonde, and is pursued by villains, on a sleeper train.

Source Code may sound like any number of modern American alternative-reality dramas from The Matrix to The Adjustment Bureau, but Jones brings a very human sensibility to the sci-fi hocus-pocus. We care whether Stevens can thwart the death of his new inamorata, or whether he finds (as one review cleverly put it) that the past is a "read-only" file that can't be changed.

The film has had a tumultuous reception. When it opened the South by Southwest Festival in Austin Texas on 11 March, viewers queued round the block and critics raved. British critics have (mostly) joined in. "It is a luxuriously enjoyable film," wrote Peter Bradshaw, giving it five stars in The Guardian. "Jones has put himself into the front rank of Hollywood directors, the kind who can deliver a big studio picture with brains."

"The great gimmick of this new film is its licence to thrill," wrote Anthony Quinn in The Independent. "An exciting, intellectually stimulating science-fiction thriller which also connects emotionally," swooned Empire. "Everyone involved earns a promotion to the premiership."

So is Duncan Jones the new British movie guy on Hollywood Boulevard, just behind the elevation of Tom Hooper (of The King's Speech) at the Oscars? Or is his rise simply the result of the influence, money and clout cast like a shadow over his life by the Thin White Duke?

He was born in Bromley Hospital on 30 May 1971 and christened Duncan Zowie Hayward Bowie. His arrival prompted his father to write "Kooks" ("Will you stay in our lovers' story?/ If you stay, you won't be sorry/ 'Cos we believe in you...") which was first performed four days after the birth on the BBC's "In Concert" session.

It wasn't an easy birth – Angie, his mother, suffered a cracked pelvis, loss of blood and post-natal depression. When Duncan was only a few weeks old, his mother decamped for a holiday in Italy with a friend, leaving the baby with a nanny. The family moved to Chelsea when Zowie was two: a charming vignette in Bowie's biography by Paul Trynka has the child scampering about the house in dungarees and long blond hair, singing made-up songs. But Angie's maternal skills didn't improve. In 1978 she left him behind in their house in Switzerland while she visited friends in New York, and blamed her husband for taking him away. Shortly after, she tried to kill herself with sleeping pills. Bowie took custody of Duncan.

His childhood was peripatetic. As well as in London, he grew up in Berlin and Vevey, Switzerland, and attended Gordonstoun, the bracingly Scottish boarding school, at 14. In 1995, he took a degree in philosophy at the College of Wooster in Wayne County, Ohio. He began a PhD at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, but abandoned it to attend film school. His influences were twofold and both involved his father.

In 1982, aged 11, he'd had his first experience of film, when he strayed on to the set of Tony Scott's The Hunger, starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve. Seventeen years later, in 1999, when Scott was helming a TV series of the same film, David suggested that Duncan attend the shoot. The two men got on so well that Scott became Jones's mentor and suggested the International Film School in London's Covent Garden.

He graduated as a director and, like so many British directors before, went into advertising. He had an early success in 2004 when he re-created late-1970s England for an ad commemorating 25 years of McCain's chips. In 2006 he scored with a commercial for French Connection: in it two women, representing Fashion and Style, were shown fighting and kissing passionately. It attracted the fury of the Daily Mail, drew 123 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, and made Jones's name. From there he raised the money to make Moon at the age of 37. And to his son's great delight, David Bowie attended the film's premiere, at the Sundance Festival on 23 January 2009.

In press interviews, some telling details appeared. How Jones and his father has enjoyed making stop-frame animations together. How David had introduced him to videos of Star Wars. How, chronically guilty about giving Duncan such an unsettled childhood, David was able to steer him into a relationship with the movies. "I think we always loved each other," Jones told the press, "but he was travelling and working a lot, and I was in his custody so it was ... tricky, because obviously there were people who would look after me, but a lot of the time he might not be around."

The tone of mingled regret and understanding is at the heart of Jones's aesthetic. Can it be that the lonely, stricken figures in his films, wondering how to connect with other human beings, aren't Bowie's artistic legacy to his son, but the direct result of Jones's childhood isolation?

A life in brief

Born 30 May 1971, Beckenham, Kent.

Family His parents are musician David Bowie and American model Mary Angela Barnett.

Education Attended Gordonstoun from age 14. Read philosophy at the College of Wooster in Ohio, followed by an uncompleted PhD at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee. Graduated from London Film School in 2001.

Career Started in advertising, his most notable campaign being the "kung-fu lesbian" ad for French Connection. Made his feature-film debut in 2009 with futuristic drama Moon, which won Baftas for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer and best British Independent Film. He ventures into sci-fi again with his latest film, Source Code.

He says "I think that my youthful rebellion was to not do music. My rebellion was more getting into sports, which my dad didn't care that much about."

They say "His films work on so many different levels. You can experience them viscerally, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. He has some big concepts he's putting out there." Source Code star Vera Farmiga

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