Tuesday, 10 May 2011
Film #40 Source Code
In which military man Colter Stevens (dreamy Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on train heading for Chicago, only to find that, Quantum Leap-like, he isn't the person he thought he was. Literally. He is mysteriously inhabiting the body of another man, being chatted to by a strange women (Michelle Monaghan) who clearly knows him... and on this goes for a seven minutes or so until the train is ripped apart by a terrorist bomb - and Gyllenhaal wakes up in a strange military pod, able to communicate only with a desk-bound officer (Vera Farmiga) who explains in frustratingly uncontextualised terms that he must relive the same amount of time again - the titular 'source code' - and find the person who planted the bomb.
Plot-wise, the touchstones are Groundhog Day (in terms of premise, the tone is completely different), TV serials like the above-mentioned Quantum Leap (which is not-so-coyly referenced both with a Scott Bakula cameo and a 'that's-not-me-in-the-mirror!' shot) and The Twilight Zone, plus a strong pinch of Philip K. Dick. And it shares a problem quite common to Dick's stories in that, while the central idea is very interesting and (superficially) profound, it is underpinned by a Swiss-cheese-like logic that really doesn't bear too much thinking about. This isn't necessarily a huge problem (and this film is preferable to, for example, the more comprehensively conceived but tortuously overwrought Inception), but don't make the mistake of taking this film too seriously.
Indeed, much of the tension in the film is artificial and illogical in the context of the story - a short but clear brief to Stevens would have saved the multiple re-entries into the source code that drive the plot forward. Further, a problem shared by many movies in the 'puzzle-film' subgenre (on which more at a later date): where human relationships take a back seat against the primacy of plot, the film can become less compelling. Many whizz-bang blockbusters like Robocop, Terminator II or even Starship Troopers have a great deal more to say about the human condition than Inception/The Adjustment Bureau/Source Code/etc.
One other negative of note: amid a cast who turn in performances that are generally fine (Vera Farmiga) or very fine (Gyllenhaal, a Michael Douglas de nos jours in the best possible sense), Jeffrey Wright sounds a bum note as the grandstanding mad-scientist type, grating every time he opens his mouth (or wiggles his eyebrows). That said, it is nice to see that the producers opted for the Lynch/Forman school of casting, using interesting-looking and characterful players in minor roles.
If it seems like I'm being overly critical, it's because there's a helluva yardstick. Director Duncan Jones - brought onto this project at Gyllenhaal's suggestion - released one of the most promising and thought-provoking debut films of the last decade in 2009: Moon. Source Code does share some themes with Moon, (though I can't really go much further without potentially spoiling both movies) and in many ways it's a natural progression for Jones, though it clearly wasn't 'his' project in quite the same sense. Nevertheless, while it's safe to say that Source Code is the lesser film for the reasons outlined above, it's also a highly enjoyable and moderately intelligent film.
The direction really does lift this film above the average. Shots are lovingly put together and Jones's visual sense is highly developed, almost Kubrick-like in the immaculate composure of mise-en-scene (and in the opening credits, which echo The Shining). He has a greater sense of humanity than Kubrick though and understands how to balance (though he would've done well to reign in Wright's aforementioned scenery chewing). So while this is emphatically not the film in which Jones fulfils the great potential shown in Moon it does show a welcome flexibility and ability to unobtrusively stamp an autuer-ish hallmark on mainstream fodder and certainly represents more than just marking time (and speaking of time, extra kudos is awarded for clocking in at the almost-perfect length of 93 minutes)
Especial credit is also due to the film's composer Chris P. Bacon [sic] whose Hermannesque score sets the tone perfectly; to DP Don Burgess, for whom this is a career-best production; and to producers Mark Gordon and co. who clearly trusted their director to create an unusual yet commercially viable film.
To sum up, an unexceptional story produced, directed and performed with verve and panache . Therefore: