Monday, April 11, 2011
Express Train: Source Code
In Source Code, Duncan Jones’ follow-up to his mind-bending debut Moon, it’s not just the audience who joins the story in medias res. The main character does, too. The film’s opening 10 minutes involve a guy waking up across from a smitten woman he’s never met before, on a military mission he’s never heard of before, inside the body of a man he’s never seen before and, oh yeah, onboard a train heading into Chicago that, technically speaking, has already exploded. For most films that would be the climax. For this film, it’s a tease. Source Code is about a man inhabiting another man’s body, Quantum Leap style, in order to repeatedly relieve the same time period, Groundhog Day style, in order to figure out who the bomber is, Murder on the Orient Express style, all while under the command of some military types, Avatar style, all while falling for the girl across the way, Before Sunrise style, all while looking to make amends from beyond the grave, Heaven Can Wait style, and all while Jones injects urgency into almost every frame, Christopher Nolan style. If that makes Source Code sound like an especially busy film, it is. But to Jones’ credit, it’s also a short one.
Unlike Nolan, who in his two most recent pictures, The Dark Knight and Inception, has attempted to sustain armrest-gripping intensity for two-and-a-half hours, Jones is content to leave the stage after a modest 93 minutes. That’s actually four minutes shorter than Moon, which is narratively straightforward by comparison. Backhanded though this compliment might seem, Source Code’s brevity is its masterstroke. The film is overstuffed with under-developed and unnecessary subplots, it has a central plot with more holes than a Dunkin’ Donuts, it has a repetitive design that tempts tediousness and, if that weren’t enough, it spends most of its energy leading us toward a remarkably flat (and false) climax, but none of that matters too much because Source Code never slows down long enough for us to complain about the view and it quits while its ahead. At 120 minutes, heck, maybe even at 100, Source Code would be yet another disheartening slog through the all-too-familiar. Instead, it’s one of the livelier movie experiences of the spring, all because Jones has the common sense to exit the ball before his carriage turns back into a pumpkin.
Of course, a tremendous amount of the film’s appeal must be credited to Jake Gyllenhaal, who as the main character, Colter Stevens, is the focus of nearly every scene. It’s a perfect bit of casting, really (as is using Scott Bakula for the voice of Stevens’ father). Gyllenhaal has enough innate sweetness to charm the girl across the aisle, and he has enough physicality to make it convincing when Stevens breaks another passenger’s jaw with one punch. American films are filled with so much testosterone these days that Gyllenhaal now qualifies as a Jimmy Stewart-esque everyman, even though at one point his character jumps from a moving train. Ben Ripley’s screenplay is designed to unfold with unceasing ticking-time-bomb urgency, but the script is also peppered with some clever one-liners that Gyllenhaal handles with ease, and his flirtatious banter with Michelle Monaghan, as Christina, the pretty girl across the aisle, serves as a nice counterbalance to the scenes between quantum leaps, when an agitated Stevens pleads for more information about his mission and his personal fate. A nitpicker would say that Stevens’ romance with Christina is flawed, because she has a history with the man whose body Stevens is inhabiting, Sean Fentress, while Stevens gets to relive just a few precious seconds with Christina before searching for the bomb and the bomber, but actually it makes perfect sense: Each time Stevens quantum-leaps into the train he finds himself staring at a beautiful woman who is ready to jump his bones – making the real Sean Fentress the best wingman of all time. Makes sense to me.
The more problematic relationship is the one between Stevens and Vera Farmiga’s Colleen Goodwin. Goodwin is the Air Force captain who acts as a kind of air-traffic control officer for Stevens’ leaps into the “source code,” a kind of reverberation in time in which Stevens takes on Sean Fentress’ body in the hopes of figuring out who bombed a commuter train (an event that has already happened) before the terrorist strikes again. To put it lightly, Goodwin isn’t up for this job. As Stevens repeatedly presses Goodwin for more information, Farmiga is reduced to a dizzying array of winces and head bobs that scream “I’m very uncomfortable with your questions!” (Just like children shouldn’t be allowed to play with sharp knives, Goodwin should be allowed to play poker.) The longer these scenes go on, the more evident it becomes that Jones and Ripley haven’t thought this part through. Goodwin and her boss, Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Rutledge, the mad scientist behind source code technology, keep insisting that time is of the essence and that all of Stevens’ questions undermine the mission, but their actions suggest otherwise. For example, rather than giving Stevens all the information that he needs from the start, Goodwin and Rutledge pique his curiosity by remaining tight-lipped and bickering with him. Even worse, Rutledge spends the majority of the film with only a casual interest in Stevens’ mission, always seeming to have something more important to do, although by the end of the film he’s insisting that Stevens’ mission is the first even marginally successful demonstration of source code technology. (You'd think that might get his undivided attention.)
Asking the audience to believe that a man can leap into “source code” isn’t a problem. That’s the nature of science fiction – it’s a leap we’re ready to make. But Source Code works against itself when it repeatedly – and quite logically – insists that the most important thing that Colter Stevens can do is save millions of lives from being killed by a dirty bomb in Chicago and then suggests that it’s more important for Stevens to get the girl or achieve closure with his father. After setting us up for a nice whodunit, Source Code takes a side door out of that thriller in an effort to tug at our emotions. To say it fails would be overly harsh; Gyllenhaal is too endearing. But whereas Moon finishes on a mentally stimulating and emotionally stirring highpoint that the film has been working toward all along, Source Code ends with a tensionless showdown between two of the film’s supporting characters and a gag-inducing affirmation of cultural harmony that could run under the words “From the Mind of M. Night Shyamalan.” For a film that starts with a bang, Source Code ends with a fizzle. With his second picture, Jones demonstrates a good sense of when to quit, just not the best judgment about where to go.