Film review: Source Code

Source Code
2011
Vendome Pictures, The Mark Gordon Company

STARRING Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Russell Peters
WRITTEN BY Ben Ripley
PRODUCED BY Mark Gordon, Jordan Wynn, Philippe Rousselet
DIRECTED BY Duncan Jones

SHOT BY Don Burgess
EDITED BY Paul Hirsch
MUSIC BY Chris. P. Bacon
DISTRIBUTED BY Summit Entertainment

Screened 2011-02-22

Captain Stevens (Gyllenhaal) awakens on a train. He has no memories how of he got there and – surprise of surprises – he is inhabiting the skin of another man. Eight befuddled minutes later a bomb explodes, the train derails, the end. And Mr. Stevens awakens again, this time in a black capsule where he receives instructions from military personnel (Farmiga & Wright) via digital screen. They tell him he must go “back to the train” and that he must track the location of the bomb and find the bomber. The Source Code, Stevens learns via the monitor, is (here I go) a memory echo of the brain’s electric output which lasts for eight minutes after death – like, they say, the way a light will leave a little burned impression on our eyes after it is extinguished. Ergo, if you can… I dunno… get a person’s brain, even a dead person’s, you can have access to the recorded impression of the last eight minutes of a person’s life. Captain Stevens has been chosen as the unwilling participant in a military exercise dedicated to tracking the train bomber using the brain of a now dead passenger. All before that bomber strikes again… Still with me? It’s a fun little idea, in a way, but ultimately limiting because of the boundaries of a mere eight minutes of space and the futility of all action in that time (forever past). It’s also ultimately a bit more complicated than that (duh). I really try to never spoil films in the summaries I write, but this film is particularly difficult to explain without being awfully specific. I suppose I am obligated to mention his archetypal “kind female companion” played by Monaghan. Anyway. Stevens relives the destruction’s preamble a number of times, has some entertaining and totally expected moments of smug precognition (at which Gyllenhaal, of course, excels) and saves the day – whoops. Well that’s only half of it anyway.

High-concept films are disquietingly susceptible to gimmickry… but I won’t deny that I could once see the writerly appeal to the “variations on a scene” game. I guess we all need to get these things out of our respective, collective systems.. or remember them once a decade. What is the half-life of the sly high-concept pitch, exactly..? One day perhaps the collective unconscious will be measured and quantified to a point where business interests are able to give the public “what it wants” exactly when it “wants it” (and there’s a high-concept pitch for you). Which is not to imply that Source Code is an untimely venture. If another “Repeater” high-concept film comes out in the next year, it’ll be said, “Just like Source Code” (after mentioning Groundhog Day, that is). So how long before the next variation? The 90’s Murray Repeater romcom made no effort to explain the gimmickry and was all the better for it. ‘Repeater: The Next Generation’ ramps up the intelligence (for our widely but superficially educated generation) with a necessarily convoluted explanation for the god-like repeating ability, now within man’s grasp. And really, I never minded it.

I have three chief grievances with this telling of Repeater, and they are 1) misfocusing of creative attention and 2) length/pacing, 3) gaping plothole. The film is a trim 93 minutes, and with such a complex story at least half of that time will be expositional. When the film neared its conclusion I honestly wanted another hour of twists and suspense – so much interest and momentum had been generated by the idea, and to see its weak, sappy end result took all the wind out of the endeavor. And it really isn’t all that bad the rest of the time. The writing is concise, snappy. The performances are all there, thanks to smart casting (specifically Vera and Jeffrey, whom are quite good). But this is the crux of point 1: because audiences seem to require a love interest and forced sentiment – any – the film’s momentum never ramps up to the level it could – and it could be extraordinary. Instead we end on a sentimental beat which was never fleshed out beyond a 1st draft and it isn’t nearly as satisfying as the rest of the film. So I posit that Mr. Jones and Mr. Ripley would’ve benefited, as we all would’ve, from more focus on the tension and pacing, which remain dismayingly consistent for a film about a train, a bomb and a ticking clock. Recall Carpenter’s The Thing… all male cast, no distractions, tight little film. Just saying. Regarding the ‘gaping plothole,’ it’s possible that I missed something, but I feel very much I like I just don’t understand… basically it’s the notion that Source Code involves delving into memories and using that to affect actual reality. I never bought this… because it doesn’t make sense. What did I miss? The train, apparently. In summation: at its current length, Source Code feels more like an episode out of a not-crap serial vignette show… and you could do worse than that.

written by David Ashley

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