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Entries in Source Code [2011] (1)

Monday
Apr042011

Source Code (2011)

We've Only Got Eight Minutes to Save the World

The trailer for Source Code made the film look like a cross between two movies I loathe, Inception and Groundhog Day (yes, I'm the one guy on the planet who doesn't appreciate Harold Ramis' classic comedy).  But in the middle of last week, I found out Duncan Jones directed it--a fact that guaranteed I'd see this in the theatre.

Jones' first movie was 2009's ethics-in-space movie, Moon, in which Sam Rockwell played a the sole caretaker of a lunar mining facility suffering from a very unique identity crisis.  On a nothing budget, Jones made a gorgeous and personal piece of science fiction that pretty much nobody saw.  Fortunately, one of those nobodies recognized Jones' talent and gave him a larger, more public sandbox to play in:  Working from a script by Ben Ripley, the director has made Source Code into one of the best films of the year.

The story centers on Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), an army pilot shot down in Afghanistan who mysteriously wakes up on a commuter train bound for Chicago.  He believes he may still be dreaming, but something is off.  Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the attractive woman sitting across from him keeps calling him "Shawn", and he can't remember anything past being in a helicopter and taking fire (the Dyson Airblade hand dryer in the men's room and the full-service Dunkin Donuts at the back of the train were my clues that Colter was living in an alternate universe, but I digress).

Colter paces the train frantically for a few minutes until a bomb explodes, killing everyone on-board.

He wakes up again in a dark, freezing tomb made of computer monitors, blinking lights and cables. He's harnessed to a chair and it takes him a few minutes to realize someone is talking to him.  On on of the screens, Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) sits at a desk in a control room and reads mental acuity tests aloud to re-set his memory.  Colter learns that he's part of a top-secret government project that allows soldiers to re-live the last eight minutes of a terrorist attack through the mind of one of the victims.  He was sent to the train in the body of a school teacher in order to learn the identity of the bomber and prevent a second attack.

Goodwin and her team send Colter back to the train several times so that he can narrow down the suspects.  With each visit, Colter gathers more clues for his mission as well as pieces of how he got drafted for the mission and who's behind it.  He also experiments with "what if" scenarios, like getting Christina off the train at on of its stops in order to save her--but the result is always the same: The train explodes and he and Christina die (strangely, even the seemingly set-in-stone details of Colter's awakenings are different almost every time; sometimes his jacket is on, sometimes it's off; sometimes Christina is leaning forward talking him out of his dream state, sometimes she's reclined in her seat).

Back in his wire cocoon, Colter engages the project's leader, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), who explains that what he's doing isn't really time travel because there's no way to affect the future by altering the events of something that has already happened; the train incident, referred to as "source code", is an unalterable fact; all Colter is doing is playing around with a locked destiny that he can vary with his mind but not affect in reality.  It's confusing and fascinating and, as we learn, possibly untrue.

It would be unfair of me to reveal more, so I'll focus on the non-story elements that make Source Code a must-see.  Let's begin with Gyllenhaal.  I was a big fan of his early on, with Donnie Darko being one of my favorite films.  Like Source Code, that movie placed the actor at the center of a universe constantly folding in on itself; Gyllenhaal has a great everyman quality (when he's not playing video game heroes) that crosses deer-in-the-headlights naivete with a snarky charm that sometimes peeks out from behind his lack of self-assuredness; his wobbly disposition is typically undone by an obsession of some kind, whether it's tracking down a serial killer in Zodiac, hiding his sexuality from the world in Brokeback Mountain, or looking for a bomb in this movie.  All of these seemingly conflicting qualities make for performances that are at once silly, grounded and intense--which is the best way I can describe Source Code.

I'd also like to give props to Monaghan--or, more specifically to the casting agent who decided she'd be perfect for this movie.  As we saw in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, she's capable of playing the confident girl-next-door-with-a-secret, and that serves her well here.  Source Code is as much about Colter trying to figure out what his relationship to Christina is as it is his hunting a terrorist.  Monaghan has a terrific poker face: We're never sure if she's a pawn, a player, or something else, and when we find out just how well she and Colter know each other, it's a mind-blowing couple of seconds that underscores the actress' abilities.

Of course, a good deal of the movie's success falls to Jones and Ripley.  It's either a credit to the screenwriter or a delicious bit of cosmic intervention that Source Code feels like it could be a prequel to Moon.  These talents just go together.  I can't be sure how much of the visual style was laid out in the script, but Jones fuses the standard action movie setups with comic-book framing and Hitchcock timing. During Colter's first few forays into the source code, I almost couldn't stand the tension: Sitting in the theatre, I didn't know if the director was playing out his eight-minute windows in real-time or not, leaving zero frame of reference for how long Colter had to find his next clue.  The tension eases up later on, as the movie's focus shifts from nabbing the mastermind to Colter's taking back control of his destiny.  And it's a tribute to the creators that both sections are equally thrilling--one on a visceral level, the other on an electrically cerebral plane that I haven't experienced in quite awhile.

The movie isn't a slam-dunk, though, and a lot of that has to do with the ending.  Actually, there are three endings.  The first is tremendously satisfying, if not a bit corny.  The second is kind of sweet, but not all that necessary.  The third is a whopper of a mind-fuck that you'll either accept, reject, or, like me, accept grudgingly.  Not to put too fine a point on this for people who haven't seen the film, but the first ending is "A Stop at Willoughby"; the second is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"; and the third is Quantum Leap.  I understand that Jones and Ripley were simply playing out their scenario to its logical conclusion, but Source Code is so full of illogic that they could have simply quit while they were ahead and still rested easy in the knowledge that they'd made a fine film.

Typically, I hate illogical movies.  But what sets this one apart is the fact that it kept me guessing as to what big reveals I'd be treated to at the end.  By the time I figured out that only half of my questions would be answered, the screen had faded to black.  This isn't the kind of thriller where characters do stupid things in order to keep the plot moving; Source Code is driven by a web of theories and realities so complex that I'm not sure if the people who devised it even knew what was going on (much like Donnie Darko); but in these rare cases, good acting, direction and forward momentum can delay analysis until at least the trip to the parking lot--which is more than I can say for most films of this kind, whose mechanics are so transparent that I spend more time looking for seams in the CG than wondering what will happen next.

Duncan Jones has delivered a spectacular second feature that demands and commands audience attention; it's a smart, exciting movie that I'll surely pine for during the imminent, brain-damaged summer blockbuster season.