Thursday, April 14, 2011

Source Code (dir. Duncan Jones)

I've always felt it was a critic's job to accurately communicate the experience of watching a movie. Some are transportive, others thrilling...others infuriating. Source Code falls into that last category.

What is Source Code, anyway? Is it, as IMDb labels it, a sci-fi thriller? Well, there's no real tension to the plot, where one would normally find the thrills. There is something mystery to the program that Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself involved in, but to what end? And then there's the mystery of Colter himself, and how he came to be involved in the Source Code program, a mystery perpetuated purely for audience involvement and not to any logical story end. But could it be more? Could it actually use a sci-fi thriller premise to explore some sort of existential issue about the nature of identity? Oh, if only...

The set-up is pretty solid - Colter is plugged into a program (the Source Code) that can let him re-line the last eight minutes of someone's life. The government is harnessing this program so that Colter can search a recently-exploded train as one of its passengers to find the bomber before he has the chance to carry out his next attack on downtown Chicago (why don't movie terrorists ever go for the big target first?).

This is about as good as sci-fi thriller set-ups get. It has a new concept, a short window of time, a lot of fun chances for repeated and slightly-altered behavior based on what Colter does each time he goes through the system. If one were inclined to go deeper, one could explore all kinds of things about what makes us us. So on a plot level, where does it go wrong? Well, first, there's no solid tension from the outside world. We understand theoretically that the clock is ticking, and that the bomber could strike at any moment, but is this yet-untested system really their only means of catching the guy? After all, he has issued a threat, and law enforcement has been able to trace those sorts of things back. And would it have been so hard for screenwriter Ben Ripley to have included a time with that threat? I know the "ticking clock" thing has been done to death and is ridiculed, but at least it works.

And then there's the tension on the train - will Colter find the bomb and the bomber? Now seems about the right time to enter spoiler territory.

Well, yes, of course he will. And fairly easily, too. The bomb is literally in the first place he looks and the bomber is really the second or third person he goes after in a major way. Ripley and director Duncan Joens (Moon) discard the bomb plot so quickly and carelessly that I thought surely Source Code is just dressed as a sci-fi thriller as a means of getting to something a lot bigger. Let's find out...

To do so, we have to go back to the beginning and explore the mystery of Capt. Colter Stevens. After some opening credits, the film starts in earnest with Colter waking up on a train, uncertain of how he got there and sitting across from a woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Christina knows him, but he's certain they've never met. After eight minutes, the bomb explodes and he's thrown back into reality, where Capt. Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) appears on a TV screen and asks him if he found the bomb. What bomb, he asks? A bomb exploded, go find it, try again. And bam, without knowing where he really is or why he's there, he's back in.

This repeats to varying degrees several times. And why? Why would Goodwin not explain the mission? For the first few times through, Colter believes it to be a simulation. Once he accepts the reality, he then wastes his time figuring out how he got to be there when the last thing he remembers was a mission in Afghanistan. How is this beneficial to him, the mission, or the lives he's supposed to save? The clock is ticking - why not tell him everything? Wouldn't it at least help if he understood the extent of his mission before the third or fourth time going through it?

The bomb plot is a total waste here, and again, nobody benefits from not telling Colter that he was actually shot down two months ago and now lives in a vegetative state with his brain hooked up to the Source Code (which raises all kinds of questions - were they just hanging onto him in case he eventually has the same physique as the victim of a major tragedy?). You could say they don't tell him out of concern for "national security," but wait, he's just over there on a table. Who's he going to tell, all these people riding the train who are already dead? From a plotting point of view, this is creating an external mystery (that is, something that affects the protagonist without him playing an active role in causing it), and the only reason to put off its revelation is to create tension for the audience. It does not serve the story or the character. Him finding the bomb is purely perfunctory, and discovering that he's already dead is a quest of self-interest rather than self-discovery. By the time the bomb plot becomes personal, he's already solved it, leaving him with no goals by the end of the second act. Well, okay, he does create a goal to save the train, but this plan completely works from start to finish. He does not encounter a single obstacle once he decides to go through with it.

"Hey now," you say. He's been dead this whole time, and how about that? How about a movie about a man coming to terms with his own death? And on a train full of the dead? That's some purgatory stuff right there. Isn't it interesting that he has to deal with being dead while seemingly fully alive? And yes, all of this would be fascinating if that was at all what the movie was about. The thing is, Colter coming to terms with his death registers in one beautiful little moment before being disregarded forever. After that, it becomes purely about being awesome action hero man and repairing his relationship with his father. And maybe getting a little action on the side.

There is a moment, right near the end, where the film had a chance to redeem itself. Colter, in the Source Code, kisses this girl he suddenly fell in love with, while in the real world Goodwin unplugs his life support. As he and Christina kiss, time stops, and for a brief moment everybody's happy, just as the bomb is about to go off. It's a small little celebration of life amidst tragedy, and it'd be beautiful in its own little way, a true testament to the power of fleeting romance and the importance of appreciating the little things in spite of the fact that, in the end, the world's just going to have its way with you...

...until it's not.

Because don't worry, audience, nobody actually died. It turns out that unbeknownst to its creator, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the Source Code has created an alternate reality and done a little soul cloning along the way. After defusing the bomb and catching the bomber, Colter not only doesn't die, but his created reality also saves everyone on the train. AND he gets to life out the rest of his life in another man's body with a woman he barely knows. Yay? It's staggering to think that the same people who routinely dismiss romantic comedies are lining up to praise a movie that comes to so misguided a conclusion, one in which happily every after happens...I don't know, an hour or so after you meet someone, and all the while you're lying to her about your very identity. It's bad enough you've been macking on her in disguise, now she's what, the love of your life? So that'll make for an awkward second date...I'm sure she won't think you're completely insane when you explain your were ported over from an alternate reality right as the government unplugged your life support. Maybe you can tell your kids!

And romantic tension aside, what are you going to do tomorrow when you have to go back into work, where you're a HISTORY TEACHER? What are you going to do, learn history over the weekend? Hell, what happens when you go to the bank and you don't know your own PIN? It's a good thing you have the dude's driver's license, otherwise you wouldn't even know where you live. And of course this "happy ending" only took place because they actually killed you back at the base. And what exactly happened to the man who's body you're now inhabiting? Oh well, dude, you totally scored a hot chick! High five!

Jones actually does a pretty good job directing this, giving the film a great high-contrast look and a few really winning shots. It's a fast-paced film, the total opposite of the tone he created so well in Moon, and he handles it nicely. He gets a few decent performances, but doesn't really form a cohesive unit very well. Gyllenhaal is mostly good here, though his outrage over his enslavement doesn't really register. Vera Farmiga plays standard "middle age female" well enough, and Michelle Monaghan is always great, and given the unique challenge of having to say the same lines over and over again comes away looking especially good. Jeffrey Wright is...good...but isn't really performing in the same movie as the rest of the cast. And the film tries to cast him as the bad guy, only he actually invented something that saved millions of lives and accidentally created another dimension...but he's not very good with people, so it's best to call him a jackass and move on.

End of spoilers

I really, really hated this movie. None of the mysteries presented at the outset have anything resembling a compelling pay-off, and the character struggles are somewhere between weak and overused. I've said before that I can overlook all kinds of bad plotting if the film manages to explore some important thematic or personal concern, but this film tries both and accomplishes neither.

I've been among those calling for more original screenplays to go into production, but if this is what an original idea looks like in Hollywood, bring on the next bloated adaptation of a line of action figures.

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