Saturday, October 1, 2011

Source Code (Summit Entertainment, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles wanted to see a modern movie so I looked through my recent DVD acquisitions and got out Source Code, a 2011 science-fiction thriller I’d been interested in mainly because of its director, Duncan Jones. The son of music legend David Bowie — he was originally named “Zowie Bowie” ( lists his birth name as Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones) but eventually used a more normal first name and re-adopted the original last name of his family (David Bowie had changed his name professionally in the late 1960’s so he wouldn’t be confused with Davy Jones of the Monkees) — Jones had made a really impressive low-budget sci-fi film called Moon, shot in 2009 for $5 million, which Jones wrote the basic story for (though Nathan Parker worked it into a screenplay) as well as directing, and though it was derivative of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Russian Solaris and several other films in its plotting, it was also an engaging high-tension melodrama centered around the lone man (Sam Rockwell) on a lunar colony and his chancy relationship with GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), the HAL-like robot who’s either taking care of him or running his life. Alas, though Source Code had a bigger budget and a major star (Jake Gyllenhaal), it was nowhere near as good; for some reason I had lumped it in with The Adjustment Bureau (partly because Charles picked up a sci-fi magazine that contained reviews of both) and thought it was based on a Philip K. Dick story (which it wasn’t — it’s a screen original by Ben Ripley — though given its quest-like structure and its playing around with the whole concept of identity it seems like something Dick could have written).

It starts as a romantic comedy on a commuter train hurtling through Illinois and approaching Chicago. Sean Fentress (Jake Gyllenhaal) is put out when people address him by that name, and he undergoes a meet-cute when a young woman, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), spills coffee on his shoe. “I took your advice,” she says. “It was good advice, thank you.”  Then another train — a freight train, though similarly streamlined — passes in the other direction on an adjacent track, and suddenly the train Sean, Christina, the rest of the characters and we the audience are on blows up. Then the scene cuts to a laboratory where scientist Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) and his military-officer assistant, Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), are supervising a research project called “source code” which essentially means projecting a human consciousness into another space-time continuum to determine what’s about to happen in our space-time continuum.

The subject is Colter Stevens (also Jake Gyllenhaal), a U.S. helicopter pilot who was reported killed when his aircraft was shot down in Afghanistan — only he wasn’t really killed: he’s survived as a head and limbless torso, sort of like Johnny Got His Gun, and he’s encased in a metal box from which Rutledge and Goodwin are projecting his consciousness onto that train over and over and over again to see if he can find out who the terrorist was who planted a bomb on it and what else, if anything, he’s planned to do. Colter has an eight-minute time window every time his consciousness is inserted onto the train before it blows up and returns him to the lab, and as with the film Groundhog Day (a model so obvious that in the special making-of featurette on the DVD virtually all the creative personnel involved in this movie, including director Jones, cited the parallel) the events repeat themselves but with slight variations, including one in which Christina is able to escape the train before it blows up — which leaves Colter with the obsession that he wants to be allowed to die following the completion of the mission, but he also wants Christina to be able to live because he’s now fallen in love with her.

Source Code is one of those mediocre movies that has a great one trapped inside it, trying to get out. The acting is good all around (though Vera Farmiga, bringing the same kind of cool authority Sigourney Weaver supplied in sci-fi stories as different as Alien and Avatar, out-acts the other principals), the plotting is relatively sensible once you accept the central premise (Jeffrey Wright gets a bit of modern-physics mumbo-jumbo dialogue purportedly explaining how this story can happen, but no one in the audience really cares), and though his part is small Michael Arden is truly scary as the terrorist, Derek Frost, who isn’t an Islamist but a free-lance deep ecologist who thinks humanity needs a chance to rebuild from the rubble but first there needs to be rubble for him to rebuild from, which Frost intends to supply (a plot device oddly reminiscent of the big-budget flop Watchmen but done a lot less pretentiously).

I’m not sure where this movie goes wrong; it starts out as one of those damnable modern films in which we seem to be intended to observe the characters as if they were lab rats rather than feel anything genuine for them, but as Ben Ripley tries to put some emotional flesh on the bones of his characters he goes whole-hog the other way and turns the movie awfully sentimental, and like the makers of The Adjustment Bureau he tries to supply a happy ending for material that virtually demands a dark one. The way it works out is thanks to Colter’s information they not only identify Derek as the terrorist but find out the bigger attack he was planning for later — he’d built a nuclear device inside a van and planned to set it off in downtown Chicago — and arrest him, but meanwhile Colter pleads with Goodwin for a chance to go back on the train-reality again and see if he can stop that bomb from going off, after which he plans to have her kill him despite Rutledge’s determination that he be kept alive for future use. (Charles questioned why Colter was able to hear instructions given him in normal speech, but could himself communicate only via e-mail or computer text; maybe we were supposed to assume that Colter’s condition made it impossible to speak but he could still project his thoughts onto the Internet, by which he could send them through making them appear on the computer screen of whoever he was “talking” to.)

Colter — or should I say Sean? — ends up in a reality in which not only does the train not blow up but he and Christina get off it, head for the section of downtown Chicago where Derek’s bomb was supposed to go off and seem to be headed for a happily-ever-after future. Where I thought it was going was the irony that, by preventing the first attack (the blowing up of the train), Colter was inadvertently allowing Derek to get away so he could set off his far more deadly nuclear weapon — so his sentimentality had cost us Chicago and his, the girl’s and everyone else on the train’s lives anyway. I’m not sure what the (artistic) failure of Source Code says about Duncan Jones as a filmmaker — that he shouldn’t work with larger budgets (Source Code cost $32 million to make, about 6 ½ times the budget of Moon), he shouldn’t work with major stars, or (most likely) he shouldn’t make movies that aren’t based on his own stories — he still impresses me as a director but this film failed to catch fire with me despite some good scenes (including Colter’s interactions with other characters on the train, notably standup comedian Russell Peters, whose character is a drier version of the old-fashioned comic relief of a 1930’s movie) and an overall concept that should have generated at least a good, and possibly a great, film.