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.


I.V.P. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
I.V.P. said...

I don't think the thriller vs. rom-com tension you identify is contradictory or incoherent. If anything, this conflict is what the film is about: the duty people have to preserve each other vs. their right to personal fulfillment - public vs. private goods. Jones seems particularly interested in the little guys trapped inside tyrannous organizations that nevertheless ensure the peace and comfort of the majority. The company that murders thousands of clones in Moon provides the resource that keeps the Earth running. Basically, I think what you identify as a weak ploy to tug the emotions is actually a central theme in the director's work, and quite an interesting one.

I also thought Farmiga was brilliant as the minder trying to keep a level head. I think the inconsistency you point out here is false as well. Goodwin is the professional employed to relay info to the operative, not the mad scientist. And for good reason, since the scientist is... pretty mad! Goodwin's arc also reflects the theme of the film, moving from professional duty to a personal connection with her charge - from seeing other human beings as means towards some abstract good to seeing them as ends in themselves.

I also admire the film's brevity, and think the ending was botched, tho not for the same reasons (Imo the "cultural harmony" scene was the perfect point to roll the credits). But I think your review undersells the filmmaker's intelligence. Call it cod philosophy if you like - some of the ideas in Source Code are corny as hell (tho nothing Malick isn't guilty of). But it's certainly cleverer than the recycled Matrix elements you get in Nolan's Inception.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hey, Mercer. Good thoughts. Some replies ...

* I think what you identify as a weak ploy to tug the emotions is actually a central theme in the director's work, and quite an interesting one.

How about this: it's both. I feel Jones invested in the theme in Moon and slapped it on here. Or perhaps I should say that it feels slapped on in Source Code, although I'm sure Jones is heavily invested in the idea.

* Goodwin is the professional employed to relay info to the operative, not the mad scientist.

Agreed, and I probably should have tried to provide more clarity to my objection. The point I was trying to get at is that each time Stevens gets involved in a debate with one of his controllers (Goodwin or Rutledge) it becomes clear that Jones is simply trying to milk the mystery and extend the dramatic conflict. There's really no reason that they can't tell him everything they end up telling him up front. The only reason they don't is that it would prevent Jones from milking the mystery.

(Spoilers ahead, folks...)

Meanwhile, the Rutledge character is terribly botched, as is the whole operation: At the end of the film we learn that this is the first attempt of its kind, that Rutledge doesn't know if it will ever work again, that the reputation of his invention is riding on this. But there seem to be only two-and-a-half people paying attention to Stevens' mission: Goodwin, the computer nerd, and (sometimes) Rutledge. What else does Rutledge have going on? It's like the director of NASA going to play bingo on the night of the first moon landing...only millions of lives are at stake, too. Thus, Rutledge's actions during the film don't line up with his confrontation with Goodwin late in the film, which comes across as false conflict for the sake of Jones' last-ditch attempt at the profound.

Also, I just don't think we see enough of Goodwin to really suggest she has an "arc." She is nothing more than a suit doing her job in the beginning and then Stevens appeals to her emotions. That's really not an arc. She's not changed in an way.

More coming ...

Jason Bellamy said...

I have no objections whatsoever to Jones' philosophies -- cod or otherwise. In fact, like you, it seems, I appreciate that he can deal with potentially heavy ideas with such a light touch, as opposed to The Matrix and Inception where gravity is always suggested but not necessarily achieved.

But in Moon everything works together, whereas Source Code is dotted by non sequiturs. For example, that cultural harmony scene: Stevens makes a remark about how there's so much "life" on that train, as if it's some kind of epiphany, but we haven't seen anything from Stevens that suggests that he's a cynic, or that he doesn't love life, or that he doesn't appreciate humankind. Jones throws that line in there as if it's a sign of growth, but from what? How has Stevens changed? I don't think he has.

I'm not trying to imply that all characters need to change, to have an arc. I'm simply suggesting that I feel Jones suggests there's change where in fact there isn't, just like in places he suggests there's conflict where in fact there isn't. Let's go back to Rutledge: When millions of lives are on the line, he only half pays attention. So now, with crisis averted, where does Jones get off trying to suggest there's tension in the scene in which Goodwin sends Stevens back into the source code one more time? It's not as if Stevens has some other mission waiting for him that requires his urgent attention. Really, Goodwin can't keep Rutledge distracted for eight whopping minutes? It's silly, and it distracts from what up until then has been established as the dramatic core of the film: Stevens' mission to save the people on the train.

If these comments have an especially harsh tone, it's because I'm describing what I see as the film's failings. I think Jones had a better but simpler movie in his grasp and let go of it in order to make it more thought provoking and dramatic.

Richard Bellamy said...

I'm not a Gyllenhaal fan, but I have to give credit where credit is due. He certainly carries this film through some of the weaknesses you point out here. Also, he and the film are at their best when Colter is in that pod that somewhat resembles the interior of a helicopter - as he tries to come to grips with who is, what his real condition is, and what he has been assigned to do. I found this film moderately enjoyable.

I.V.P. said...

I think the justification for the mystery being milked is that revealing all up front would create exactly the conflict of interest the film eventually ends up exploring - Goodwin wants Stevens to do the mission, not call his dad or flirt with passengers.

Stevens's love of life epiphany did not have the feel of a non sequitur for me, or a change from some other unexplored cynical state. After all the intrigue and stress, I thought it was earned.

I saw the Rutledge / Goodwin conflict as a parallel exploration of the film's means vs. ends, public vs. private theme. I'm pretty sure Rutledge suspected that Goodwin was attempting to kill the whole project, which is why he was so much more involved in the action. I'm also a lot more positive about Goodwin's role: I think she is changed, in that she is inspired by Stevens to rebel against her employers.

Also, don't worry, your tone is perfectly civil! I'm commenting because I was surprised at the very different reaction you had towards this film. It seems like we focused on different aspects of it, which is interesting to me. For example, I thought the film's major weakness was its motive-less creepy villain. And the main non sequitur I noticed was the way Stevens magically develops expert pick-pocketing skills at the end. I mean, where does a fighter pilot learn that!