Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Source Code

"This Train is Bound for Glory, This Train"
"Getting to Heaven By Way of Hell"

Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up, disoriented on a trainHe was on a mission in Afghanistan just a moment ago...now he's on a train heading for Chicago, and the pretty girl (Michelle Monaghansitting across from him is calling him "Sean."

What the..?

The world is rushing by, full of commuter-sounds and commuter-problems, but all he knows is that he's not where he should be, and that the face staring back at him from a bathroom mirror isn't his.

"Don't worry," says the pretty girl, Christina.  "Everything is going to be alright."

And then, the train explodes.

Famous last words.

Duncan Jones' (a clever enough director after two films that we can stop saying he's David Bowie's kid) last film was the under-performing Moon, featuring a tour de force performance by Sam Rockwell, and a sensibility that borrowed its uneasy creepiness from other sci-fi pics like 2001: A Space Odyssey.  What was nice about Moon was that it was science fiction for adults, touching on themes and concepts that point out what role exactly man will play in Space, whether its comfortable or not.  In Source Code, Jones and his clever scriptwriter Ben Ripley explore the same issues in the guise of a science-fiction time-travel movie that has, at its core—its owen source code, if you will—the guarantee that the train is going to blow up every few minutes...like a movie serial gone very, very wrong.  And it is Stevens' mission, as he is military, to keep catching that train for the critical eight minutes before the explosion to try and find the bomb, stop it (low priority), but, more importantly, find out who did it—for that terrorist attack is merely a distraction for emergency crews to turn their attention away from a much bigger threat.  Stevens must survey the passengers on the train to determine how the bomb was detonated...and who did it.

Each eight minutes gives him more clues, narrowing his focus and his mission, but at the same time, he's starting to have feelings for the girl sitting across from himHe wants to save her, and maybe the other strangers on the train.

But, like any broken-hearted suitor, he's living in the past.  They're already dead.  And time is running out for Chicago.  His mission specialists (Vera Farmigadoing a lot of subtle work with so little—and Jeffrey Wrightdoing too much, as he is wont to do when searching for a character) are tasked to keep him on point: "Out here, the clocks only move in one direction."

"Out here?"  Where is he?

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" had an ingenious episode "Cause and Effect" (directed by Jonathan Frakes), where the U.S.S. Enterprise-D was caught in a time-loop, but its crew didn't know it.  We'd watch them go through a series of events, there'd be an emergency and the ship blew up.  Cut to commercial.  Back to the story, everything would reset, we'd watch the crew go through the same scenario, but with an increasing sense of deja-vu.  The ship would blow up.  Back to commercial.  We'd run through the same incidents over and over, until Picard and co. realize that..."oh, we're caught in a time-loop, and we're doing the same things over and over, how do we stop?"  It takes a few Enterpri blowing to smithereens before they figure out how to keep it from happening again.  It was 60 minutes of Boom, Rinse and Repeat.

As I said, clever.*  Like Groundhog Day with one hell of a punch-line. But here, the stakes are higher.  Stevens doesn't know anyone on that train, but in his plunging again and again into that future-Hell, he gets to know them, as they go from suspects to victims, while managing to piss off each and every one of them along the way.  The deeper he goes, the more he empathizes with their plight and wants to change a History already set in smoke and flame.  Even if in a small way.

Source Code manages to be many genres in its perpetual loop of pieces of time: Science-fiction, disaster, action, detective, love story, and finally, inspirational, in showing how we, mere meat and electricity, can escape any trap that science, however well-intentioned, springs on us.

The best of science-fiction, despite the abilities of its clockwork mechanisms and theories to explain How Things Work, take those trappings of the soon-to-be, and tests the mettle of the beings caught in the gears.  The most inspiring of science fiction always throws in the element of humanity that rises above by taking a leap of faith in nothing that approximates theory.  Inspiration makes science. Wishing makes it so.  Humanity makes both.  And there's no formula, no theorem, no artificial intelligence to replace that one organic spark, the living breathing pilot light in the testing furnace of technology.

And the belief that everything is going to be alright.

Source Code is a terrific Matinee.

The official poster for Source Code just sucks (and even the one I used above doesn't do the job).
But Olly Moss designed one (for the SXSW double bill with Jones' Moon) and it's quite timely.
 * Jones is all too aware of the source code for this movie.  One of my favorite bits in the film is who plays Stevens' father in voice-over.  Of course, it has to be him.  And it's a terrific performance, even if we never see him.


Mike Lippert said...

It's nice to know that entertainment is once again getting to be, how should I put it...entertaining again.

The Mad Hatter said...

This is one of those films that actually surprised me in the way that it played a lot better than it came across in trailers.

Gotta think that many other films that relied on such a gimmick would fall apart were they not in the hands of a director like Jones.

Great review good sir!

Dan said...

I love how the film gave us two separate mysteries to unravel; his search for the bomber and for the truth behind his own past. If it were all focused on just the bomb it would have gotten old fast, but by switching between the two questions, it made things a lot more interesting.