Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Source Code

It took me a while to get around to it, but I finally sat down to watch Duncan Jones' follow-up to Moon, Source Code, this week.  If I had put a little more thought into my timing, I could have watched it on Groundhog Day and had myself a very poignant moment.  Hindsight, people, hindsight...

Source Code opens with a very disoriented Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) waking up on a commuter train, heading for Chicago.  The woman sitting across from him, Christina (Michelle Monaghan) is talking to him and calling him "Sean."  The last thing he remembers is piloting a helicopter in Afghanistan, so Colter is just as mystified as the audience is.  Things get weirder when he runs to the bathroom and sees an unfamiliar face in the mirror.  What the hell is happening here?  And then the train explodes, killing everyone on board.
The end.
Colter wakes up in a military facility, in some sort of testing chamber or something.  There, he gets a little background on his situation (via a monitor) from Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga).  A terrorist has bombed the Chicago Metra Commuter Rail and contacted the authorities; this is just as an opening act for his next attack, which will be the detonation of a nuclear device somewhere in Chicago.  That's awfully sporting of the terrorist, to give authorities a heads-up.  That's not completely idiotic in the least.  Thanks to a highly experimental program run by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the authorities may be able to stop the next bombing, but the clock is ticking.  Rutledge's program allows Colter's consciousness to hop into the mind of Sean, one of the victims of the bombing, and relive the eight minutes prior to the explosion.  Colter isn't bound by Sean's actions, though; Colter can make different choices and do different things in those eight minutes.  Basically, Colter is being sent into a close-looped alternate reality, where the same people will do the same things, unless Colter influences them differently; after the eight minutes, Colter awakes in his metal pod thing, reports, and is sent back over and over, until he catches the bomber.  But what about Colter?  What makes him the one person who can stop the bomber?  And what about the people on the train?  If Colter is creating an alternate reality, couldn't he affect the future outside of those eight minutes?  Couldn't he save everyone?
I ask the tough questions, Jake

That may sound a lot like a plot-heavy science fiction story, but director Duncan Jones manages to make this into a fairly taut thriller.  There is a sense of urgency here that the whole "reliving the same moments over and over again" concept should probably negate, but strangely does not.  Kudos to Jones for that.  I thought the movie looked and felt fine, with solid performances from the cast and some clever choices (like not having the science in this fiction explained) that made this cerebral concept into a bit of an action movie.  And I mean that in an unexpectedly good way.

Jake Gyllenhaal heads up the cast of Source Code, and I liked him just fine.  I'm not a big Jake supporter, and this isn't his best work, but he handled an interesting character with unconventional stresses well enough.  I thought Michelle Monaghan was charming as the secondary character; she was stuck repeating a lot of the same things, but her character grew on me as the film progressed.  The same cannot be said about Jeffrey Wright's character, who is comically shallow and abrasive.
Funniest moment is when Wright fastidiously parts his bald spot
I like Wright, but his character would have been 200% better if he acted sympathetic or vaguely human; his choices would have had dramatic impact then, instead of simply being the inevitable move of a villain.  Vera Farmiga is okay in a fairly limited role, if only because she shows evidence of an inner conflict.  The rest of the cast was largely inconsequential, but I did recognize Michael Arden and Russell Peters in shallow roles.

On the one hand, I really want to like Source Code.  It manages to pull off a cool science fiction concept without a huge budget, and its charm comes primarily from the characters and not the plot.  I wasn't bothered by the science in this movie, either.  Sometimes movies try to explain their ridiculous concepts too much, and sometimes they opt to keep the audience completely in the dark, but I thought Source Code did a good job of straddling the line between those two, and I think the story was better for it.
Wait...why is it cold...wherever he is?  Um...science?

I did have some major issues with this movie, though.  First and foremost, I found myself irritated by the repetitious nature of the story (in the first half, anyway).  Jake Gyllenhaal is no Bill Murray, and Source Code is definitely not Groundhog Day, so this movie needed something to keep the viewer interested in the rehashed scenes.  The intention is clearly for the mystery of the bomber to keep your attention, but it's pretty obvious from the start who the bomber is.  SPOILER-ish ALERT: I mean, we know that the bomber has plans that don't involve the train, so we're dealing with either a suicidal terrorist with excellent planning skills that dies on the train, or someone who leaves the train to better bomb Chicago.  If it was me, I would investigate the people leaving the train first.  But that's just me.  Since I solved the mystery on my own with about two seconds of thought, I was less than enthralled by the scene reduxes. 
Attempt 137: testing the effectiveness of rap battles in drawing out the terrorist

The second half of the film is much better, but there are some disturbing (and probably unintentional) repercussions that are left unaddressed.  DEFINITE SPOILER ALERT: So Colter is able to replace the consciousness of Sean with his own, right?  That only works because both men are, essentially dead.  But what happens when Colton changes reality?  Sean is now alive, but his consciousness appears to be gone.  Did Colton just steal the life of a totally nice guy?  Worse, did he do it with a smile?  What a dick!  And now, he will have to fake being Sean for the next fifty years, feigning recognition of friends and family and having to figure out how he's going to bluff his way through being a history teacher.  Seriously, what kind of a happy ending is that?  He even refers to it as "fate."  Jerk.  And then there are the paradoxes.  Is this an all-new "prime" reality, or is it an alternate one?  I would have really appreciated a little speculation on this subject in the script.  According to the the story's logic, Colton rewrote history in the prime timeline, but how can Colton's consciousness be invading Sean's noggin when it is also in his useless body at the Army base?  That seems problematic to me.  And then there is the logic of the terrorist.  I am willing to buy into a villain being dumb enough to explain his evil plan to the good guys before he has enacted said plan.  It happens all the time in comic books and movies.  I would have preferred for this villain to not be that dumb, but I understand the plot's need for that moronic behavior.  What I don't get is his cover plan.  He's planning to explode multiple trains in a jumble of fire and twisted metal, so his alibi is to SPOILER ALERT: leave his wallet on the train?  Really?!?  What are the chances of that being found?  And why does he care?  If he's writing manifestos, this is a person who wants a soap box opportunity, not somebody who will fade into the night.  It's not even like that is a rock-solid alibi, either.  If the police find it --- and that's a huge "if" --- it's not like he's off the hook for the bombings.  At best, he confuses the police for a little while...months and months later, as people poke through the rubble of a post-nuclear Chicago. 

Here's the funny thing, though: I would have been really impressed with Source Code if it had made just one or two small changes.  I wish Colter had to fight off Sean's personality from time to time; it would have added an extra layer to the story (perhaps the eight minute window is because that's how long Colter can stay in control?) and it would have given Colter a moral choice to make in the final act of the film.  Or, of course, the writer could have found a way around having the terrorist be pudding-up-the-nose stupid.  Either one would have gone a long way.  Still, this was a pretty cool science fiction idea that was executed well.  It was unfortunately written by the guy whose highest profile writing gigs before this were the third and fourth entries in the Species series.  Good direction and solid acting wasn't enough to make Source Code awesome, but even crappy writing doesn't make it bad.

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