Monday, April 11, 2011

Source Code (**)

Directed by Duncan Jones


I cannot say whether or not Duncan Jones is a fan of the 1993 Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day, but I may suggest to him to check out that film's screenplay. In it, Phil (a character played by Murray) has to relive the same twenty-four hours over and over and over. In Source Code, the film's protagonist has to relive the same eight minutes over and over. A large gulf in between those two allotted timeframes, I'll admit, but both films use similar tactics in order to convey the repetitive notion of the story. Yet, in Groundhog Day, the film takes the preposterous nature of this repetition and allows it to add a real charm to the story. Not the case in Source Code and I kind of wish it had.

Now, I realize how unfair it is to compare a goofy comedy directed by Harold Ramis to a sci-fi action film, but I'm using Groundhog Day as a reference point to illustrate my main issue with Source Code: as the plot unfolds, the story actually becomes less interesting. The film begins with military officer Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) waking up on a train heading for downtown Chicago. He has no idea how he got there. A woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) is in the midst of making small talk with him about her future plans. She keeps calling him Sean. He looks in his wallet and sees the ID for a man named Sean Fentress. When he goes to the mirror, he does not see his own reflection, but one of another man entirely.

At this point, you are very confused, but confused in a way that makes Colter (or Sean?) compelling. He's trying desperately to figure out what is going on. And this is when the train explodes and everyone inside it is engulfed in flames. This is the peak of out interest here as an audience member. After the explosion, Colter wake up in a dark capsule. A scientist named Colleen Goodwyn (Vera Farmiga) speaks to him on a monitor and informs him: he must relive the last eight minutes of Sean Fentress' life in order to find out who put the bomb on the train. Discovering the bomber will help Goodwyn and other officers find the culprit and prevent him from other dangerous activity. Of course, Colter is very confused about all of this, but he doesn't have much choice in the matter. As soon as Goodwyn calls the order, Colter is sent back to the train, waking up just in time to have the same small chat with Christina.

Colter tries and fails several times to find the bomber, always returning to Goodwyn with more questions. Why is he there? How are they doing this? Why Sean Fentress? Eventually, his stalling is confronted by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), who explains to him that he is not experiencing a simulation, but that he is in the source code of the deceased Fentress' mind and he must use those last eight minutes to find the bomber. This is explained in technical jargon that Rutledge himself states is a little too complex to formulate into something as simple as a conversation. But he is able to explain one thing clearly: Colter will have to keep on going back into the source code until he discovers who the bomber is and report it to Goodwyn and Rutledge. This bomber plans to cause further destruction, so his ultimate capture his of the upmost importance.

There are times when Rutledge's force-feeding of the source code on Colter seems like torture, and I guess there isn't a better form of torture on the planet than making a man explode several times. Over the course of all of Colter's attempts, the details of this seemingly impossible mission come into focus and he learns things about the world he left behind that may alter his perception of the mission. This is where the movie begins to get a little a silly. But I guess it's silly to challenge the preposterousness of a science fiction film. After all, we never question Star Wars even though the inhabitants from a galaxy far, far away look exactly like us humans and Han Solo has a hairdo straight out of a 70's issue of Teen Beat. But that Source Code pokes and prods its audience with its preposterousness felt a little flagrant to me. Perhaps most other viewers will feel differently.

In all honesty, I found myself enjoying Source Code for it's first half, but the more I began to learn - the more twists and turns the screenplay (penned by Ben Ripley) threw at me - the more I found my mind wandering on other things. That the film feels it necessary to wrap the story up into a tidy ending that actively defies the already ridiculous logic cooked up in this loopy world is a testament to how many holes the screenplay had dug itself. The first two acts work like a true Hitchcockian thriller, leaving the audience in a hazy mystery that makes us want to watch more and more. As it develops, I don't feel like Source Code really delivers on that potential, instead relying a whole lot on standard movie pitfalls and a need to try please everybody. I'm sure there were a lot of moviegoers who weren't happy with seeing Janet Leigh die halfway through Psycho, but Hitchcock always knew how to keep us on our toes.

That's another unfair comparison, I know, but it's not like this film was put into incompetent hands. Director Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie - a small piece of trivia I find myself repeating often, only because it's so damn cool) handles the thriller aspects in an exceedingly effective fashion, but he cannot be given a free pass for the disappointing way in which this story develops. This is his second film, after 2009's Moon which was another movie that had an ending that felt all too tidy considering the serious moral complications it brings up. But Moon was always a simple movie to begin with, never getting bogged down in over-complication, so that was a pill that was easier to swallow. Source Code spends a lot of time trying to explain itself when it should just be getting back to Colter's dangerous mission. It's no coincidence that the film's best sequences are on the train.

But if there's anything that works well in Source Code it's its performances. Gyllenhaal brings real warmth and charm to this trapped man, endearing with a debonair quality that few other than him can provide. Farmiga, Wright, and Monaghan also do formidable work here, all adding dimensions to characters that could have easily been limited in dimension. Jones showed his ability to seek out good acting when he got the performance of a lifetime out of Sam Rockwell in Moon (a performance I still feel is underappreciated). I'm genuinely excited to see what Jones does in the future, because he's tackling science fiction in a way that few others are in film. The moments in Source Code that work, work really well. It's just too bad that there's such a steep fall.

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