A brief look at the works of Duncan Jones, ending with a review of Mute, and how it was an accidental opus…
Mute is not Duncan Jones’ magnum opus. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. If anything, in his illustrious yet short career, I’d say Moon is his greatest piece of work.
But, let’s start by explaining that for those who don’t know, that Duncan Jones is a director. Mostly of science fiction. He also just happens to be the son of Ziggy Stardust, aka the great David Bowie, who has very much influenced much of his body of work.
When people hear the words magnum opus, they think of an artist’s most renowned piece. A timeless classic that will be forever remembered. In terms of movies that qualify as a magnum opus, I would include films such as Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and The Shawshank Redemption.
However, more often enough, the success of one of these pieces is dictated less by creators and more so by a mixture of luck and sheer resonance with the audience. That something about these works held their finger on the pulse of the era – timeless masterpieces captured onscreen. What’s more surprising, is that in many of these cases, an artist’s greatest achievement is unintentional.
That’s the conventional way of seeing the magnum opus.
But as a storyteller and cinephile, I look at it differently. Not so much as the piece that took the audience’s breath away, but rather the piece the creators held their breath in hopes to create. The work that is valued most dearly to their heart. The dreams they’d never given up on and refused to lose control over.
For instance, when approached by the Tracy Ulman Show to adapt his original series, cartoonist Matt Groening did not give up the rights on his comic Life in Hell because he believed that it would be his legacy. Instead, he pitched a throwaway story about the American nuclear family called The Simpsons.
James Cameron, for many reasons, directed the movie Titanic as a means to pursue his hobby of underwater exploration. The movie that he’d actually spent a decade of his life trying to make (and will most likely spend another decade making sequels to) was 2009’s technological 3D epic: Avatar.
Even Christopher Nolan, known for his psychological thriller movies and the Batman franchise, spent most of his life both acquiring the skills needed to make a big-budget picture; patenting down his technique and his script until he was finally ready to direct his high concept heist movie Inception. In fact, Nolan’s first movie, entitled Following, is a story about a man obsessed with a burglar named Cobb who through various forms of psychological manipulation, gets away with a crime. Inception is the story about a burglar named Cobb who enters people’s minds and manipulates their dreamscapes to commit the crime of corporate espionage.
Though, I cannot say Following was officially a precursor to Inception. However, I can say that the similarities are more than a few and that it’s oddly coincidental Nolan spent years developing his skills before trying to make Inception the way he wanted to.
Mute is director Jones’ version of that as he took over a decade to produce the film since the first initial script he had written sixteen years ago. Jones had various struggles in making his dream project, between finding the right cast, getting the needed funds, and consistently adapting the script to stay relevant as both technology and storytelling changed over time.
I won’t pull punches – Mute was universally panned by both audiences and critics alike. But in the mess that is Jones’ dream project came a lot of heart. And in many ways, Mute became a strange yet heartfelt homage to his father, the great David Bowie, and to his mother figure/nanny, Marion Skene, both of whom the movie is dedicated to.
I’d say Moon is Jones’ best piece of work. In many ways an homage to science fiction films of the 1970s, Moon has that brilliant mix of subtly and sci-fi. Most of the film’s low-budget effects and production were kept in studio, utilizing a whole lot of miniatures and designs. Still the movie felt well-executed with Jones’ direction and vision staying on point. Moon was able to hook the viewer, hit emotional beats, and keep the correct pacing up until the end.
Even more compelling is that it isn’t incredibly farfetched of a story as Moon blurs the line between science and science fiction. The first act gives us a familiar sense of isolationism used in paranoid space thrillers, followed by two acts of high concept sci-fi and a bit of black comedy. Like many others, I had no idea what this movie was about going in. I thought we were expecting something akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey due to the initial setup. Instead, the viewer gets something intimate and interpersonal. Although the revealed truth feels odd at first, its believable thanks to some excellent characterization in act one. With actor Sam Rockwell exceedingly selling it as burnt out astronaut Sam Bell (the movie was made to showcase Sam Rockwell’s talents in mind); then Kevin Spacey pulling off quite the voiceover as compassionate yet stoic AI computer GERTY – a computer who in many ways, excels its HAL 9000 predecessor both as a character and because it comes with dual emoji settings: Happy face. Sad face.
Above all else, it’s the self-actualization throughout the movie that hits hardest as the movie comes to terms with themes of identity and purpose. Though it only skims the surface, as the movie meant to be a light and floating through space kind of experience. However it comes with disturbing undertones because it’s a cautionary tale about something scientifically feasible and even possible today.
Probably the most financially successful of Jones’ films, Source Code was also his only movie where he had no input on the story. Befitting because the story in source code is lacking. It uses more than a handful of used Hollywood tropes such as the forced romance despite little development even fewer female lines, the ticking time bomb that forces the plot to move forward with a constant state of tension, and best of all, over-expository technobabble explaining complex quantum mechanics to an average person who will never truly understand the concept.
The confusing thing is that those are the best parts of the movie. In an obvious nod to Quantum Leap (even Scott Bakula makes a cameo), much of Source Code involves Jake Gyllenhaal’s character(s) Captain Stevens/Sean Fentress, living the same 8 minutes on a train prior to its explosion. Basically the plot to Groundhog Day. In this case however, Stevens is living the account on the train again and again through a compatible person’s body in an alternate timeline. His goal is to discover the terrorist who setup the bomb so that they can stop him before he does it again in the present.
The plot is convoluted. It works only if you adhere to the rules that science fiction is beyond reason and just expect the ride to a happy ending. The action and thrills are on point though, which surprised people because this was the same Duncan Jones that directed Moon. Even more surprising is that despite being a thriller, the movie had more of a romantic-comedy’s type of characterization. Where a less-than willing hero is spending less time solving the issue at hand and more time trying to get with/save the victim, in this case, Michelle Monaghan’s Christina Warren.
Unlike Moon where the science subtly questioned ethical and existential themes in technology and business, the science used in Source Code operates more like Arthur C. Clarke’s third law in that it is almost magical and remains a mystery in its function.
They also never give a reason why Stevens was chosen or why this moment needed to be saved as compared to the countless other atrocities. Or for that matter, who is sanctioning this technology in the first place. The story just runs with the plot and hopes that the audience sympathizes with Stevens enough that you ignore these gaping holes.
This is a recurring problem I see with Duncan Jones. He makes stories in these very intricate and established worlds that more than often feel underutilized. Focusing more on intimate character narratives. In Moon, the space station served more as a vehicle for Sam’s isolationism and self-reflection. The alternate timelines in Source Code, served as a purgatory for our hero to overcome and gain everything missing in his life. In both worlds, the science was the afterthought and the hero was the journey.
Duncan Jones’ biggest budgeted film, this movie will probably forever haunt the director as his most difficult to make. Shortly after taking over production from Sam Raimi, Jones’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. By the end of production, his father died of cancer. Suffice to say, this was arguably the most stressful time in the director’s life.
Atop of all that came surmounting pressure from a revolving door of studio executives at Legendary Entertainment. Jones had difficulty at all phases of production. First, with rewrites of the original script written by Charles Leavitt – of which the primary concern was that the story was too similar to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Wanting to keep faithful to the video games he enjoyed playing, Jones strived to depict the conflicting races of Azeroth equally. Making the Horde as relatable to the audience as the Alliance. Working very hard with Chris Metzen (the creator of the Warcraft universe), the two did a good job of adapting the original source material for the screen given the restrictions set upon them by the studios.
Expectations were high from both Legendary and Blizzard. Legendary was undergoing restructuring (more on that later) and Blizzard still very much depended on its billion-dollar Warcraft franchise. There are so many storylines over such a long timeline, it was surprising that they picked the original Warcraft to adapt into the movie, a storyline that hasn’t aged well over time.
In Warcraft, the orc clans of the dying world of Draenor unite under Warchief Blackhand (played by acclaimed voice actor, Clancy Brown) into a single unstoppable force known as the Horde. Using a magical portal opened by the orc warlock Gul’Dan (played by the multi-talented Daniel Wu), they send an invading party into the world of Azeroth in attempts of escaping their dying homeworld and claiming this new one as their own. Powered by Gul’dan’s Fel magic, the orcs seem unstoppable yet are also corrupted. The Fel being the same power that secretly destroyed their homeworld.
Not everyone in the Horde agrees with Gul’dan. Durotan of the Frostwolf Clan and his best friend Ogrim Doomhammer see the warlock as the manipulative conniver that he is. With them is Garona Halforcen (played by the lovely Paula Patton), the half-orc/half-human who plays a critical role on both sides of the adventure. The three quest to join the Alliance in trying to stop Gul’dan from achieving his goals of bringing all the orcs of Draenor to Azeroth and corrupting them.
On the opposite side is the alliance of humans, elves, and dwarves. The group is losing the war. Lord Anduin Lothar (Played by Vikings’ star Travis Fimmel), the hero of the story, confides with apprentice mage Khadgar, the Last Guardian Medivh (played by Ben Foster), and Stormwind’s King Llane Wrynn (played by the talented Dominic Cooper of AMC’s Preacher, whose real-life wife and frequent acting partner, Ruth Negga, also plays his Queen) to find a way to stop the Horde. They take in Garona and attempt to team up with Durotan, but like any good fantasy story, there’s a bigger badder evil pulling the strings.
Without a doubt, it’s a plot that needed condensing. Unless you’re a huge fan of the game like myself, Warcraft was a difficult story to follow that jumped between characters far too quickly for us to feel emotionally engaged.
Ironically, Warcraft whimpered domestically but crushed it internationally. Visually, the movie is stunning but the process was plagued with rewrites and poorly made executive calls during a tumultuous time for Legendary Pictures. Overall, marking the end of an era for the production company.
A Brief Note on Legendary Entertainment:
Legendary was a major player in comic book movie adaptations including most of the DC hits since the mid-2000s (yes, including Batman). Its CEO Thomas Tull, was a comic book fanatic and self-professed fanboy. In 2012, Legendary had a co-financed, seven-year, forty picture deal with Warner Brothers expire. Shortly after, Legendary signed on with Universal for a multi-picture deal as a new partnership instead. In a massive buyout, the film studio was bought for 3.5 billion dollars by the Wanda Group, a Chinese mega-conglomerate. Wanda’s focuses were in property development but had been moving into the entertainment industry within the past decade.
It was during this chaos that the Warcraft movie underwent a hellish 3-year production. Staff and executives each had a different vision and say, changing so often that the movie became muddled in its direction. By the end, Jones’ claimed his original story felt utterly compromised in the final product. Unsurprisingly despite commercial domestic failures for Legendary, 2016 was a string of hits for in the Chinese film market – with Warcraft, The Great Wall, and Kong: Skull Island. A sign that U.S. domestic box offices may not matter as much as they had used to.
Today, internal struggles still plague Legendary. Long-term CEO Thomas Tull had officially left in 2017. He was replaced by Wanda’s Senior VP of Cultural Industry Group, Jack Gao. Ten months later, Jack Gao left his position as well and Legendary was without a CEO until only recently.
Many of these issues came to light as Wanda was forced to focus their investments on the domestic side. Much of this, is because the Chinese government started imposing stricter regulations. With Wanda Group losing its access to utilize domestic assets as collateral for international business investments. Wanda is under investigation for some of its business practices as well and so Legendary Entertainment is trying their best to distance their image from its parent company. However, whether they focus on the American box office or continue to shift focus toward the Chinese box office is unknown.
It took the experiences of failing at Warcraft for Jones to get his act together and make Mute. Originally written during his time as a film student, Mute is Duncan Jones’ magnum opus. The project he spent his lifetime trying to get made. After sixteen years of passes from Hollywood, and even a failed graphic novel adaption attempt, it was finally Netflix that green lit Jones’ project. The director never lost sight his dream in all of that time:
“The more time that past, the more I’d felt like nothing else was coming out that was like it. That kind of just reinforced the idea that there was something special about this, “ Jones during an interview on the ID10T podcast.
Mute is a character-driven story set in a technological world. It’s a sci-fi noir about a man named Leo (played by Alexander Skarsgard, of True Blood and Legend of Tarzan fame), a large Amish bartender maimed mute as a child. Leo is the ultimate fish out of water. He cannot adapt to a world littered with communication and information technology; partially, because he injured his vocal chords as a child, but mostly because it goes against his Amish heritage. He can though, draw, write, and whittle extremely well. None of which are useful talents on this amateur detective journey. For the sake of conflict, Leo’s Amish background works more as a hindrance to overcome in the story. It runs along this ever-present theme of traditionalism versus futurism all throughout the movie.
To get by, Leo bartends at a nightclub (again, Amish?!). Although many find him odd, he is in a very loving yet strange relationship with a server at the club named, Naadirah. She is everything to Leo, though she is barely in the movie, and why she loves him is beyond reason (honestly, she’s a manic pixie dream girl for the sake of plot). Our journey begins when one day Naadirah goes missing and Leo goes on a quest to find his missing girlfriend.
On a parallel journey, is the story of two surgeons: the hot-headed Cactus Bill (played by the delightful Paul Rudd) who wants to get himself and his daughter out of Berlin, and the creepily perverse Duck (played by Justin Theroux in an Owen Wilson wig – literally – that’s what Jones asked for).
Casted together as a best friend doctor duo in the style of Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland from M.A.S.H. (even the wardrobe choices are an homage to Trapper and Hawkeye), the story of Bill and Duck tries very hard in vilifying two oddly likable antagonists. Paul Rudd feels too likable and funny to be a menacing psychopath Cactus and Justin Theroux’s Duck lacks subtly. The character often felt too much like a pedophilic stereotype.
While the cast is extremely talented, all three leading men ostensibly try to portray roles contrary to what they’re typically casted. It’s genuinely hit-or-miss at times but ambitious and refreshing to see something different, particularly in Paul Rudd’s case. It also works against the film in that I can’t tell when Cactus Bill is trying to be menacing or when he’s trying to be funny. I believe Jones was going for both, yet tonally, it’s offsetting. Especially for a father whose daughter feels like both an afterthought and bizarre plot payoff in the film.
Though the most offsetting cameo by far goes to Dominick Monaghan (Merry from LOTR; Charlie from LOST) in Geisha makeup making sweet, sweet love to a pair of piston action dildo robots. This is why it’s difficult for me to classify this movie as either dark or silly, maybe it’s both.
Above all else, Mute is an incredibly well fleshed out world inspired by Jones’ feelings for Berlin. The director having spent time living there when his father, David Bowie, created his infamous Berlin trilogy albums.
Though Mute is a noir thriller taking place in futuristic, Berlin, much of the world building was inspired by recent events happening in Germany, particularly Angela Merkel’s invite to let one million immigrants into the country and the backlash that followed. In Mute’s Berlin, a hard shift back to the right-wing politics made it so that anyone of pure Germanic ancestry was allowed a free pass to return into the country. With some segments of communities, including Amish, coming back into Germany.
It is a world layered in conflict with a contrast in style, befitting from the son of Bowie. The protagonist Leo is old-fashioned yet surrounded in a world that’s technologically new. Sexuality is openly expressed and even commoditized, however still often secretly gets abused. The neon highlights and color palate flash in the background; a promise of a Berlin dream that never really happens as our story takes place within its dark underbelly. The bouncer has nerdy glasses. If you pay attention to the movie, you’ll see so many visually instances of a movie being loud in expression yet quiet in presentation.
Netflix is releasing 80 original films In 2018 to compete with the large movie studios. Netflix’s Bright and Mute being some of the firsts of the year. Many of these movies are original ideas passed on by Hollywood – mostly out of fear as big studios dislike the risk of adapting an unproven concept.
Enter Netflix and Jones’ partnership. A director turned off by his recent experiences with Legendary and big budget studio, and an organization with a low risk showcase platform, willing to take on the risks Hollywood was not. Indeed, Jones’ experience making a movie for Netflix was quite opposite from his time making Warcraft with Netflix giving Jones creative agency and supplying everything needed without the strenuous executive calls or market research driven supervision.
As such, Mute was made the way Jones had always envisioned it. The problem, was that his vision didn’t adapt well over time. The world had changed and cultural landscapes turned. In this case becoming much more sensitive and cognizant of its inclusivity. Mute suffers in its own grit because without context violence, especially depicted towards women, it is unjustifiable in fiction without representation. The world of Mute is filled with misogyny and abuse. What’s worse is that there just aren’t many strong female voices in the movie, a problem of which Hollywood is under scrutiny.
Even more difficult to digest is that one of the main characters of the story is a pedophile. Though these sins layer the dark complexities of this world and these characters, the story lacks the necessary discourse. It just doesn’t do enough to justify it being there.
This brings us back to one of Jones’ recurring flaws as a storyteller. While the world is incredibly well thought, it is utterly disconnected from the conflicts happening between characters. In many ways, Jones’ problem is that his worlds lack purpose in his movies. He treats character and world as separate entities the way Michael Bay divorces storytelling and robot fight sequences.
It’s odd, because Jones does a great job of creating universes that are compelling and often quite metaphorical. But if you look at all the movies we’ve talked about so far you could very much see that you can take the characters outside of their settings and it still works as a story.
You take Sam Bell away from the moon and put him in an underwater research facility and it still works as a narrative focused on isolation. If you placed Source Code into a romantic comedy, you get the movie Groundhog Day. You take Warcraft… well no, there actually isn’t much of anything outside the world of Warcraft.
Now had Mute come out in the mid-2000s it would have been groundbreaking. But right now, the timing was incredibly off. As noted in it’s abysmal 13% score on Rotten Tomatoes and 5.4 IMDB score. This movie’s underrepresentation of women does it no favor and the noir genre, a style noted for its victimization of women, does fit well in the wakes of the Hollywood gender pay gap and #MeToo movement.
Visually, although Jones re-teamed with cinematographer, Gary Shaw, of whom he’d worked with previously on Moon, many compared the neon futuristic aesthetic to the Blade Runner franchise. Critics claimed it to be derivative and highly saturated. Although the movie’s world was a compelling exploration of technological anomie, augmented reality, xenophobic isolationism, kink, and pansexuality, modern science fiction has done all of this before, but better. With Black Mirror and Westworld as two immediate examples off the top of my head that I believe address these issues much more tastefully. Even more befuddling is that the dark complexities of this world has little to do with the actual story.
So why after all of this do I still call it Duncan Jones’ magnum opus?
Well like all dream projects it has a lot of heart, like anything well-intended that takes a lifetime to get made. Mute is Duncan Jones’ baby. A baby that took years of film school, directed commercials, and box office mishaps to finally get there, all the while, living in the shadows of the success of his father.
There’s something beautiful about Jones’ struggle in making this film, and I think this movie is symbolic of his career. Not because of the accolades or lack-there-of, but because of the effort to make something special.
Atop that, I don’t think the movie is as bad as others have made it out to be. For all its flaws, it very much tried to be different and I respect that. Especially for an industry where virtually everything seems like a knock off about one thing. To make an entirely semi-original and sort-of new thing (for any screenwriters like myself you’ve heard this pitch a million times).
Mute is a movie set in a messed up world with some very contradictory characters, none of whom feel like they belong. It’s engaging, albeit emotionally vexing. More than anything else, it’s a movie about parenthood with three men dealing with parental issues of their own. Whether it’s a lifetime hindered by Amish childhood practices, a father who’d like to take his daughter away, or a man who should in no way, shape, or form be anywhere near children, the characters of this film deal with some severe daddy issues.
Which I’d like to think, may be symbolic of Jones’ journey of fatherhood. From moving on from the legacy of his parents, becoming a father himself, and playing careful guardian to his creations, his movies included.
Mute is available streaming on Netflix.