Sunday, April 3, 2011

Source Code - Theatrical Review


Release Date: April 1, 2011

Duncan Jones made a huge impression on me when his first film Moon released a couple years back. Not only did it have Sam Rockwell providing us with an outstanding performance but Jones seemed to have a knack for what I consider smart science fiction. You believed in that world he created and now with Source Code, while being a bit more popcorn entertainment than his previous film, he proves that he is not a one hit wonder.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Krikorian 12 in Monrovia
Time: 2:30 pm April 2, 2011
Projector/Theater Type: Digital 2D - LFX

Loves: Director Duncan Jones, Michelle Monaghan
Likes: Time paradoxes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jeffery Wright, Vera Farmiga
Hates: Nothing actually
Glad: That the director hit it out of the park with his sophomore effort

There are many easy comparisons one can throw out there for the inspirations that Source Code is seemingly derived from. I caught glimpses of 12 Monkeys mixed with a large chunk of Groundhog Day and what is quickly becoming a popular quote for anything dealing with multiple realities, it has a lot of Inception in there as well to spice things up a bit. Is it fair to label a film with comparisons like those? Perhaps not but I can't help it if those were the films that kept popping into my head as I sat in that theater and experienced Duncan Jones creation. And let's face it, if a film makes me think of three amazing movies like those in a positive manner then that is very much a good thing in my opinion.The important perspective to keep though is to not hold the film up to any standards that those other amazing pieces of work have set. Source Code deserves to be looked at based on its own merits and although it may be comprised of many of those different elements, in the end I found it to be something wholly original on its own accord and one of the smartest straight up science-fiction films I have seen in quite some time.

Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) has just awoken on a speeding train completely disoriented as he tries to make sense of his situation. The woman sitting across from him, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), seems to know him but he has no idea who she is. After a few minutes of trying to piece together what exactly is happening an explosion occurs that kills him along with every other person on that train. He then wakes up inside what appears to be a capsule of some sort where he is immediately instructed to debrief the woman on his monitor, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), about the location of the bomb. After his confusion (and ours) starts to fade away we learn that he is part of an elaborate military exercise called the source code where he has been given the identity of a passenger on a train that was inbound to Chicago and was blown up by a terrorist bomb earlier that morning. If he is unable to locate the bomb and thus locate the bomber then another bomb will be activated in the heart of the city killing millions. His mission is to then continuously return to that train in 8 minute increments reliving the same series of events over and over again until he can complete it using whatever methods he can.

Captain Stevens tries to figure out what the source code is.

What I liked so much about the director's previous film was the intimacy we felt with the character, how even though there were bigger things going on we were always more worried and focused on that one individuals ordeal more than anything else. He has applied that same mentality here with the character of Capt. Colter Stevens, even though the stakes are bigger than him we ultimately care more about his outcome than whether or not he is able to prevent another terrorist attack. That's not to say that we don't care if he completes his mission but more along the lines of we are worried for not only his safety but what exactly will happen to him when and if he does complete his mission. This is a character drama plain and simple that has been cleverly disguised as some form of a doomsday science-fiction extravaganza.

The premise of the film is what's going to get people in those seats though. The idea of living the same segment of time over and over again is an intriguing one. Even though it has been done before in a more comical nature it never once felt borrowed or stolen. Jones also side steps what could have been one of the major detractors to such a concept, that being we the audience are asked to watch the same 8 minutes over and over again. By making each successive journey reveal a new piece to the puzzle as well as always showing us something new in those few minutes I never once got sick of reliving those moments with Stevens. And yes there are numerous puzzles at play here with not only the surface level plot involving the bomber but also the mysteries of what exactly the source code is and how or why Stevens is a part of it.

Captain Stevens attempts to explain his bizarre actions to Christina.

The pieces are hand delivered to us like a bread crumb trail and Jones masterfully informs us on key information just when we need it. Like Stevens, I too get easily frustrated when things are kept from me and hate it when a huge plot twist or swerve is saved until the final moments of the film (I'm looking at you Mr. Shyamalan). Burning questions such as why can't he leave the capsule, why is Goodwin so persistent to not give him any information, or why when power goes out in his capsule is he the only one that can fix it are all answered during the course of the film in a timely fashion. And by the end of it all we have a fairly good grasp on what is going on and what the true stakes are so that during the final moments we are able to go along for the ride instead of second guessing everything.

It doesn't take too long for the mission he is on to become almost secondary to him trying to figure out not only where he is but when he is. Even though the idea of time travel has been heavily promoted in the advertising for the film it is not really a time traveling story. We learn from the head of the project Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) that the source code is not a time traveling device but actually more of a way to enter different realities or more to the point a parallel timeline. This concept helps ditch the idea of a time paradox or any logic issues that usually arise from such story conceits. You won't find that whenever he returns to the capsule that events in the present time have been effected by his actions. Instead it is more like a looping computer program that he enters each time to retrieve the information he is tasked with obtaining. The simple fact that the Captain knows and understands that he cannot change history during his jumps back to the train help keep him and us focused on the real matters at hand.

Dr. Rutledge and Captain Stevens discuss his options.

Which leads me into another area where I feel the film excels, which is the use and explanation of a technology that for intents and purposes is preposterous. Too many times we see films (or television shows) get bogged down in the details. There was a major plot point in Jones previous film that revolved around a certain type of technology that was never gone into beyond the basics we needed to understand it. That same principle is applied here with the techno babble about the source code being explained to us in such a manner as to not confuse us. They give us just enough knowledge about its functionality so that we can keep up with what Stevens is doing and just sit back and let it all happen without the migraine inducing Sci-Fi mumbo jumbo impeding our enjoyment.

The real trick though lies in how the overall story and characters overshadow the gimmick of reliving the same moment in time. I promise that by the film's midpoint the alternate reality hook will be at the back of your mind. I am not sure when it happened but I know for a fact that there was this gradual ease the filmmakers did to lull us into caring about these people and their plight more than caring if we get to see stuff blow up real cool. I could really give a crap about how the source code worked (leave that for the geeky discussions with your friends afterwards), I wanted to see if Stevens, his train companion Christina and his contact in the "real" world Goodwin would come out of all this alright. When you have a general concern for the characters on screen then that is a surefire mark of great storytelling which Source Code has in spades.

Christina is slightly confused by her friend's questions.

Much of the praise (as usual) must go to the actors themselves. Jake Gyllenhaal hasn't really been doing very much in the way of anything that matters lately. The atrocious Prince of Persia was almost the last straw for me. I loved him in Donnie Darko and found some of his other roles later on to be good but nothing that ever really stood out. His Captain Colter Stevens is the type of character that we can not only sympathize with but also feel something for. As the mysteries surrounding his involvement with the source code project come to light he goes into all different states of paranoia and frustration. But he still has his mission to complete and the emotional juggling act of those pieces combined with his growing attraction to Christina combine to make Stevens a very fragile yet strong presence. And Gyllenhaal commands the screen every time he is shown in what is one of his best performances to date.

The other actors are understandably given mush less attention than him but they all come through when they have to. Monaghan was saddled with probably the most thankless character there is as Christina. Every time Stevens returns to the train she is a blank slate again. Most of the time she just has to sit there looked confused and/or smile as Stevens runs all over the place causing all types of chaos during his search for the bomb. She did what she could with what was allowed in that reality and I can't knock her for it. She is one of my favorite actresses out there today and I just thought she was slightly wasted here which was unfortunate. I believe there were some places they could have used her character better but overall she did what was asked of her and she did it well.

Goodwin and Stevens try to figure out who the bomber is on the train.

The only other two major characters are Goodwin and Rutledge. Farmiga as Goodwin was a cold presence for most of the film on that monitor in Steven's capsule. But she surprisingly ended up being one of my favorite parts of the film as she became more and more conflicted on what they were asking Stevens to do. And I can't deny how mesmerizing those eyes of hers was on the screen for all those close ups. Note to other filmmakers, if you need an actress for a ton of close ups then cast Vera Farmiga without second thought. Wright as Rutledge though was more or less a straight forward character that represented the government aspect of the proceedings. Wright has one of those voices that just commands your attention with every word uttered and every time he was asked to explain something he used that talent to great success.

Before I end this I do want to point out one last thing. This film moved fast, very fast. I never look for or expect a film to make it feel as though time flew by but am appreciative whenever it does. It is usually the first sign of a film being truly captivating from beginning to end for me which Source Code most certainly is. As hard as I could try I could find no real fault to the film beyond a couple very minor quibbles regarding the handling of Monaghan's character and some of the revelations at the end. But none of those effected my enjoyment in the least. I am happy that Duncan Jones seems to be on a good streak with his creations and that an actual budget (Moon was made for peanuts compared to this) didn't skew his abilities or his vision. I have to say then to...



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