Friday, May 27, 2011

We Agree (Kinda): Source Code

Duncan Jones (of whom writers always seem to make some reference to the fact that he's David Bowie's son like it's relevant somehow, kind of like I'm doing now) entered the cinematic community with a big splash(down) with a deliciously retro sci-fi drama called Moon. Cinephiles everywhere seemed to embrace the movie, and I'm sure many, like me, were crying foul that star Sam Rockwell didn't get an Oscar nomination in 2010. Jones, likewise, established himself as a strong storyteller, negotiating Moon's tricky plot with relative ease, expertly conveying it's themes of identity and trust, and handling the science-fiction elements naturally, in a manner that would've made Kubrick proud. Jones was on the radar.

When Source Code's trailer appeared at the multiplex late last year it took me by surprise. A sci-fi/time-travelling mystery/suspense starring Jake Gyllenhaal that at once piqued my interest but also looked relatively generic. As curious as I was about the plot, it seemed the type of mid-budget genre movie Hollywood likes to greenlight, then, during production, water down the heavier sci-fi elements so as not to put off the "general audience", and introduce a love-interest sub-plot so that girls will watch it too. There was no mention in the trailer that this came from the director of Moon, all of which leads me to believe that it's more a work-for-hire effort/learning experience for Jones rather than a creatively fulfilling one. This isn't to say that Source Code is a bad movie, but rather, a bit of a let-down when compared to Moon.

There's not a lot of discernable style on display here, unlike Moon, which seemed to succeed because of limitations of budget rather than in spite of them. Being forced to shoot in confined sets led Jones to some really creative framing and the production design made it seem a much more expensive vehicle than it truly was. Source Code is a bigger budget movie and Jones isn't really forced into any kind of visual constraint, so while the movie is told well, stylistically it's not all that compelling.

(a bit of SPOILERAGE ahead)

This film, like Moon, is generally set in confined spaces. Its lead character, Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal)is an army helicopter pilot who finds himself inhabiting the body of a teacher, Sean Fentress, on his commuter train into Chicago. Stevens surveys his surroundings despite his disorientation and strives to come to grips with where he is. Then the train blows up. He awakes inside of a pod where his only communication with the outside world is a small monitor where he engages Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) while Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) putters around in the background. Stevens is advised that he's entering the "source code", vaguely described as not a simulation, but a sort of digital construct of an 8-minute span of time which only certain individuals can enter, Stevens being one of them. As a soldier he's sent on a mission to determine who planted the bomb on the commuter train, as a second bomb has been warned to detonate within central Chicago. Time is of the essence, and Stevens is sent back into the same 8-minute span, in a sort of post-9-11 Groundhog Day until he figures it out. At the same time Stevens is trying to figure out exactly where he is outside of the source code and how he got there, as well, in the least believable or necessary aspect of the film, as he lives repeatedly through this loop, he begins to fall for the woman who sits across from Sean Fentress every day on the commute.

With multiple mysteries at play (who is the bomber, what happened in Afghanistan, where is Stevens really, can the source code actually change the future, who is Dr. Rutledge) the film is never at a loss for intrigue, and it moves through its story at an exceptionally brisque pace, which is why I find the romance angle to feel so forced. With all the other things going on in Steven's mind, all the thoughts he's having to process, I would think the last thing he would be thinking is how Michelle Monaghan would make a suitable girlfriend... and how he comes to this decision is written so matter of factly, so calculated that it's like a robot's understanding of attraction. If you string together all the times Stevens ventures into the code, it adds up to about an hour, two at best. Hardly enough time to develop a full blown crush on someone, all the while looking for a bomb, a bomber, thinking about who you are, where you are, and getting in touch with your dad.

I liked Source Code, I like the themes it plays with and it has a working logic to it. Gyllenhaal holds the movie almost completely (though, again, it seems like even he was trying to work through the necessity of romance amidst all else). The supporting cast, Monaghan, Farmiga, Wright are just that, supporting. They have little demands of them beyond "be cute", "emote sympathy", and "act a bit kooky", respectively. They all pulled their weight to build the reality of the plot and react to Gyllenhaal's restrained frenzy. If anything threatened to pop Source Code's suspension-of-disbelief bubble, though, it was the presence of Canadian comedy icon Russell Peters (yes, really) as a passenger on the train, that is until it was make clear he was playing a moderately well known comedian (essentially himself), at which point it kind of made sense.

David and I had a hearty debate about the meaning of the end of the film, about whether Stevens' changing of the source code changed history or spawned a new timeline. In fact our discussion was perhaps my favourite part of the film. Next time we get into something like that, I'll try to record it for a G&DSD podcast.