Director Duncan Jones (“Moon”) has produced a first-rate thriller with Jake Gyllenhaal as Captain Colter Stevens, sent back in time and into the body of a man on a commuter train eight minutes before it will explode, to see if he can find the bomber.
At first, we are as confused as Stevens, as he comes to on a Chicago-bound commuter train, apparently mid-conversation with a beautiful woman (Michelle Monaghan), with no idea of who or where he is. He goes into the bathroom and sees someone else’s face in the mirror, as in the old television series “Quantum Leap.” And then everything explodes and he is in some sort of capsule, talking to an officer in some sort of operations center on the other side of a window, (Vera Farmiga as Colleen Goodwin), trying to understand his mission though she answers most of his questions with “not relevant.” Her sense of urgency is clear, though. He must find the bomber on the train before he makes it into downtown Chicago to set off an even deadlier bomb.
Like an action-adventure version of “Groundhog Day,” Stevens is sent back over and over to re-live the same eight minutes to try to notice as much as he can about the people around him. He is in the past, Goodwin tells him. Those events have happened. There is nothing he can do to stop the bomber from killing everyone on the train, including the man whose body he is temporarily occupying. Those people are already dead. His mission is limited to identifying the bomber so that he can prevent the even greater tragedy that is yet to happen. As Stevens goes back and back again over the final eight minutes before the explosion, he is able to learn from his mistakes and start over. But it also means that whatever he has to do must be accomplished in eight minutes. And he re-experiences those minutes over and over again, learning more about what is happening on the train, and in his reports to Goodwin more about what the program he is working for it all about, his ideas about what his mission entails begin to enlarge.
Jones makes each replay different and enthralling as we work with Stevens to find the bomber and then to solve the bigger issues he uncovers as well. It is fast, fun, and exciting and bolstered with a top-notch cast to make some of the wilder elements of the science fiction work (though no one ever really figures out how to manage temporal anomalies). Gyllenhaal is believably dashing, dedicated, and dreamy, and Monaghan is believably someone it would take far less than eight minutes to fall for. Jeffrey Wright clearly relishes his role as the single-minded creator of the system that sends Stevens back in time and Farmiga is ineffably moving as the officer whose conflicts about what she is asking Stevens to do deepen as she keeps hitting the rewind button. Jones shows a sure hand in delivering on the concept and the action but he has already mastered pacing, story-telling, and heart. He makes each of the replays vital and engaging and knows just when to lighten things up. And he even sneaks in an affectionate “Quantum Leap” reference, with Scott Bakula providing the voice of Stevens’ father and even throwing in a signature “Oh boy.” It is the wit and attention to detail (pay close attention to that last shot) that makes this story worth going back to a few extra times.
“Hop” would more accurately be titled “Stumble,” a disappointing follow-up from the producers of one of last year’s best family films, “Despicable Me.” It is just another story of a hapless live action character who has his life turned upside-down by an animated animal, as in “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” also from director Tim Hill. Character design by New Yorker artist Peter de Sève and some subversively cheeky asides from Russell Brand are not enough to make up for a dull script, pointless celebrity cameos, and an overall nutritional content lower than a stale Peep.
As a little bunny on Easter Island, E.B. looks up to his father, the Easter Bunny (aristocratically voiced by “House’s” Hugh Laurie). He is dazzled by the vast underground factory. Enticingly elaborate assembly lines produce all the candy for the annual Easter basket delivery, with the help of second-in-command a big, fluffy yellow chick named Carlos (voice of Hank Azaria). But when he grows up, E.B. (Brand) no longer wants to take over his father’s egg scepter and delivery duties; as the song goes, he just wants to bang on his drums all day. Just before he is about to go on his first delivery, he runs away to the place where dreams come true: Hollywood.
Fred (James Marsden) is another son whose lack of focus and responsibility is a disappointment to his father (Gary Cole). His frustrated parents throw him out of the house to force him to get a job. Sam, his sympathetic sister (“The Big Bang Theory’s” Kaley Cuoco), gets him a job interview and a place to stay, house-sitting in a mansion to care for her boss’s dogs. He literally runs into E.B., and takes him to the mansion to recover.
E.B. creates chaos and frustration for Fred in various locales including the mansion, the job interview, and a school play. But E.B. also inspires Fred by validating his childhood memory of seeing the Easter Bunny’s egg-shaped flying ship, pulled by a flock of yellow chicks. If E.B. does not want to be the Easter Bunny, Fred resolves that he will do the job. But someone else also has his eye on the post – Carlos.
“Hop” repeatedly gets in its own way by establishing intriguing set-ups without any satisfying resolution. It is pointless to have Fred interviewed by a notoriously outrageous comedian (Chelsea Handler as “Mrs. Beck”) if she is not going to have anything funny to do. All she does is look a little annoyed when he is late and show him around the office. And it is not much better to have the “Pink Berets,” commando bunnies sent to Los Angeles to bring E.B. back, without finding something clever or interesting for them to do. They’re super-effective and powerful until for no special reason they are not. It all feels slack and sloppy, less a story than one under-written set-up after another, cut and pasted together with little sense of moving forward.
It has a poor sense of its audience as well. Kids will not understand or care that E.B.’s first destination is the Playboy Mansion because he is “a sexy bunny” or recognize Hef’s voice on the intercom. Even adults are more likely to find that encounter more skeezy than humorous. David Hasselhoff is a good sport about spoofing himself as the host of a talent show, but how many in the audience will get the KITT joke? When Carlos offers to take over the Easter Bunny duties, the only reason the boss turns him down is a broad and dismissive “a chick can’t be the Easter bunny.” Compared to the generosity and insight shining through the comedy of “Despicable Me,” this seems clumsy and thoughtless – and not much of a message for kids about tolerance.
The Easter Bunny has nothing like the secular appeal or extensive mythology of Santa Claus and this movie does nothing to make us wish he did. Despite some surface appeal, it is as hollow in the center as a chocolate rabbit.
Duncan Jones, with only two films, has already established himself as an exceptionally able director. He wrote and directed his first film, “Moon” with Sam Rockwell, and it was remarkably assured, impressively creating a fully-realized future world that was believably normal — and on a tiny budget. His first big-budget film is another sci-fi story, “Source Code” with Jake Gyllenhaal as a man sent back in time by a military operation to relive the same eight minutes over and over until he can locate a bomber. I met with Jones in the wonderful circular Chimney Stack Room at the Georgetown Ritz and we had a great talk about my home town of Chicago, where the movie is set, about the movie’s secret tribute to the 1980’s television show, Quantum Leap, and about how his father, rock idol David Bowie, got him hooked on science fiction.
I’m from Chicago and I loved all the Chicago scenes in the movie!
I’m so glad. You’re the first person I’ve talked to other than the people who worked on it who can say we got it right. It was the first time I’ve ever been in a helicopter and it was stunning to be able to fly through the skyscrapers in Chicago. Incredible, amazing.
And you used the Chicago commuter train through much of the movie, with its characteristic double-decker seating.
We took the real train a number of times to get a feel for it and take reference photographs and everything. And then we built our own in Montreal. The funny thing was that the real trains, a lot of the carriages date back to the 50’s and 60’s. They’re beautiful, but they look so period in some ways. We had to update the interior a bit or people would think he was really time-traveling!
I had just finished “Moon” and was doing the press tour for that. In Los Angeles, I had the chance to meet with some of the people I wanted to work with, and one of those was Jake Gyllenhaal, an amazing actor, very handsome, very talented. I was pitching ideas to him, and he said, “I have this script you should really read,” an original spec script by a young guy called Ben Ripley. It was a great read, fast, started off with an incredible ten pages and then keeps up that pace the whole way along.
I made my suggestions – I said, “I think the tone is quite serious. I wonder how you might feel about injecting a little bit of humor into it.” He liked that and we agreed that was what we wanted to do.
For you as a director, it is a real challenge as your main character repeats the same eight minutes over and over again to keep it fresh and interesting and different for the audience.
Yes, one of the most terrifying aspects of this script for a film-maker is how do I keep going back to this same event six or seven times and not bore the audience to tears. I had a graph and I literally worked it out on a visual level how each iteration would be different, whether we used a different angle or went to a different part of the train or move to the upstairs, always keeping variety there. And then narratively, we made sure there was no replication, always something new going on, something learned by Jake, a new relationship, new people. You still have the same eight minute event with continuity but no sense of replication.
We also get a montage taste of other trips back but about six in detail.
Why was the humor important?
I am a big science fiction fan myself. I see it divided up into hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi. Hard sci-fi is where you extrapolate into the future from where we are now and work out incrementally how we get from now to this point in the future. “2001” is a good example of a future you can believe might exist and you can see how we could get there. You understand it could actually happen. Soft sci-fi is a little more fantastical. It can have dragons or magic. And for me, time travel is in a gray area between the two.
I have a hard time believe it is possible but I love it as an idea and I understand the theoretics of it. My approach was, “Let’s use humor to cajole those like me who might not believe that it is possible,” to just say, “Take this leap of faith with me into this world where it is possible, just accept it because the story and the ride is worth it.” Humor does that. It is a very powerful tool in film because if you can get the audience and the protagonist to be laughing about the same thing, to be sharing a joke, in a way, or finding something amusing, the audience bonds with the character automatically.
When I saw the film, I wondered if you had changed the original ending.
We did, but not in the way you’d expect. There was a very sweet, romantic ending that beautifully finished that side of the story, the relationship side. But I am a sci-fi geek and I wanted to deal with this loose thread back at the facility.
It is a challenge to create a character who is interesting enough to play the villain but – without giving too much away here – not so interesting that he throws the movie out of balance, given the direction things end up going in the last third of the film.
I saw this documentary, “The Nuclear Boy Scout,” about this boy in the Midwest, about 15 years ago, trying to qualify for a Boy Scout merit badge in nuclear physics, incredibly smart but no comprehension about right and wrong and built a breeder reactor in his mother’s back yard, just going to antique stores and the library. He was able to create a breeder reactor. The government had to clean it up. Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you have good judgment; that was where we started. As for casting, if you go with a bigger name, it makes it immediately obvious that if you do that you draw attention to that person. The actor we found, I had seem him at a casting session on video and I said, “There’s something about that performance in particular that captures what I saw in that documentary.”
You pay tribute in the film to some other sci-fi movies.
There were lots of references and parallels, including Quantum Leap, the TV show. My homage to that was the voice of the father: it’s Scott Bakula. He actually says, and we slipped it into the dialogue so it’s very organic, “Oh boy.” So the fans of the show will get that!
Throughout the film there are subtle homages to Hitchcock, here and there. The soundtrack has a Hitchcock vibe to it, and the setting on the train and the clock tower.
Who did the soundtrack?
Paul Hirsch, the amazing editor we had on board – he edited “Empire Strikes Back, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Ray” – he’s a legend. He recommended Chris Bacon, this very young composer he had just worked with. We met with him at 11:00 at night, the day his wife had just given birth and he looked like a walking zombie. We hit him with all this information and told him what we wanted, something mischievous and mysterious, and said, “Can you write us something to see if you’re the right guy?” and four days later he came in with the opening theme as is.
It sounds like you worked very fast on this film.
Jake was finishing “Prince of Persia” and was going to disappear to do press for it. So we had about 35 days, about the same as “Moon.” I think that helps give it a sense of urgency; that energy does translate sometimes.
Have you always been a sci-fi fan? Books and movies?
Books first in fact. My dad is an avid reader and ever since I was a kid, I would read an hour a night. He always wanted me to read so if ever I was finding it difficult to get interested in something, he’d pull out Animal Farm or The Day of the Triffids to get me back in. “Blade Runner” is the be-all and end-all for me in science fiction. I strive to make something one day that has the sense of scope. It feels like you could pan the camera away from the actors and you would still be in that world.
My next film is science-fiction, too. My first film, “Moon,” was made for very little money. This is more of a Hollywood film. I’d love to take one of my own projects and make it with a “Source Code” kind of budget.
What do you look for in a project?
Empathy. The idea of identity, who someone is, whether the person they think they are is who everyone sees them as. Mostly that the audience can understand and feel for the main protagonist, that connection between the audience and the person whose story you’re seeing. My next one is science fiction and then I’m going to take a sabbatical and try something different.
Exclusive Clip from Robert Redford’s ‘The Conspirator’
Posted onPosted on
We are thrilled to be able to present an exclusive clip about director Robert Redford’s new film about Mary Surratt, the only woman charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln. Surratt is played by Robin Wright Penn, and the cast includes Evan Rachel Wood, James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, and Justin Long.