by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
Civilization is a Faustian bargain. For every progressive step, individuals and societies pay some equal price. Farming allows us to feed large groups of people, but at the cost of settling populations to till the land, thus diminishing hunter-gatherers. Understanding the universe often means giving up our superstitions, forcing us to question our most basic religious beliefs. Circumventing this bargain poses the same problems as creating a perpetual motion machine. All of the schematics designed by the most earnest Da Vinci wannabe won't sidestep the first law of thermodynamics.
But the dream persists. It fuels most science fiction, and has since Victor Frankenstein first envisioned fueling a cadaver with vital forces, thus bringing it to life. From the beginning, science fiction asked, and continues to ask, a never-ending series of "what if?" questions, toying with concepts and taking them to their logical conclusion.
Because science fiction uses humankind's knowledge of the universe to spin its tales, outsiders can see it as sterile, free from the constraints of morality. However, many of its best known works function well as morality plays. From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus and H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau to Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" and James Patrick Kelly's "Think Like a Dinosaur," the genre poses moral questions that challenge our knowledge of right and wrong. The choices the characters make serve as moral puzzles in which the solutions have true consequences. Even works that appears to pose no moral question (such as Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey) still address the Faustian bargain.
When they don't, they can come off as sterile or entertaining but ultimately slight.
Take the recent thriller Limitless, for example.
Based on a novel by Alan Glynn, director Neil Burger's adaptation follows Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), your basic mid-thirties slacker with eyes on writing a novel that could change the world, if only he could just write it down. Jobless, single (his girlfriend breaks up with him at the beginning of the movie), with his publisher on the verge of taking back his advance, he runs into his ex-brother-in-law who presents him with NZT, a drug that instills incredible focus and awareness. Taking it allows him to develop superhuman intelligence, which he decides to use for the betterment of the world. Along the way, he runs into Russian mobsters, power brokers and crooked lawyers.
It's enjoyable as thrillers go, with an engaging cast and suspenseful sequences. Additionally, Burger (who makes the picture look beautiful) utilizes an interesting technique when Morra downs a NZT tablet, twisting landscapes until they look like an Escher painting brought to life. Even better, the movie engages the viewer just enough to make most overlook some of the ridiculousness of the more generic thriller elements. By those standards, Limitless is actually quite good.
For all of Morra's flirting with posthumanity, Limitless never address the moral question such a movie must ask: when a person becomes a posthuman being, what happens to his humanity? Morra impresses crowds of rich people with his fast-talking intelligence, he plays the stock market, he eyes a position as a Master of the Universe.
But he hasn't earned it.
Worse, he never pays a price.
True, Morra learns that excessive use of NZT leads to addiction. Though he undergoes symptoms of addiction, he recovers almost immediately. When he asks his girlfriend (they get back together after NZT has allowed him a certain amount of success), to get his pills from his apartment as he undergoes withdrawal, she takes one as she's being chased by a mysterious thug who obviously want Morra's supply, and is repulsed by the results afterwards, but continues her relationship with him. When a Russian mobster hopped up on NZT dies in a shootout in Morra's apartment, and Morra has lost his last tablet, he drinks the mobster's blood to absorb the drug's effects. One could argue, at best, he loses some dignity, but Burger and screenwriter Leslie Dixon treat it as a plot puzzle rather than a test of character.
Which could be said of the entire movie. Though about a man who achieves greatness, Limitless never becomes great itself because it never provides Morra, or itself, with a moral center. Doing so would have transformed it from a good movie into a great one.
It certainly makes Source Code, Duncan Jones's second feature film, great.
It opens with Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) waking on a commuter train into Chicago, disorienting him because his last memory is of flying a combat mission in Afghanistan. An attractive young woman whom he has never met (Michelle Monaghan) talks to him in very friendly terms, calling him by a different name. When he finally looks in a mirror, a different face looks back at him. And then, as if these don't disorient him enough, the train explodes, killing him... and he wakes up in a darkened capsule, where Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) asks him, via video monitor, if he has accomplished his mission. When he stammers, unable to answer the question, he writhes in agony, blacks out... and wakes up on the commuter train into Chicago, where he relives the events of the previous eight minutes.
Gradually, Stevens (and the audience) learn that the United States government has provided him with the means to enter the body of a schoolteacher eight minutes before the teacher's death on the train. His assignment: find the bomb that destroys the train, and identify the bomber before he detonates a dirty bomb in downtown Chicago. If he does not, then Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), inventor of this magical technology, will continue to send Stevens back until the mission is accomplished, or until the second bomb dusts the city with fallout.
I reviewed Source Code elsewhere, so won't repeat that review. Suffice to say that Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley play with many elements of science fiction and thrillers, nodding not only to Groundhog Day and the television series 24 but also Richard Lupoff's "12:01 PM," to say nothing of the works of both Barry Malzberg and Philip K. Dick. And had Source Code never strived for more, it would have been as entertaining a thriller as any made this year, even for its flaws.
Fortunately, it sets its sights on grander horizons.
Even with its high concept premise, Source Code unfolds additional puzzles, driving Stevens, and the audience, to the true heart of the picture: the nature of free will versus determinism, duty to country versus duty to oneself, the price of progress. Though the bombing and the threat of a second target drive the movie's plot, the questions raised compel the audience's attention. To say how it accomplishes this would spoil many of the movie's gifts.
"If you had only one minute left to live, what would you do?" Stevens asks Christina (Monaghan) on each eight-minute journey, as if stating a mantra. It underscores the choices Stevens must make, and his understanding that his actions, despite assurances from Rutledge that he cannot alter the past, do have consequences. Like Limitless, Source Code asks questions of its science fiction premise. However, where Limitless evades answers, Source Code braves them. It faces the questions and answers them. As a result, one, for all of its artistic flourishes, remains little more than an entertaining diversion, while the other, despite occasional missteps, compels discussion and rewards repeat viewings.
One lacks a moral center, while one asks fundamentally moral questions.
"Moralizing without entertainment is propaganda," author Rita Mae Brown once wrote, "and entertaining without moralizing is television." The best science fiction, like the best art, understands this, and doesn't shy away from its Faustian nature but instead embraces it. Such work, amazingly, becomes a reverse perpetual motion machine.
The rewards outweigh the cost.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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