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Thursday, 14 April 2011

Film Review: Source Code

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Science Fiction has its droves of devotees, but it has become such a broad term that Sci-Fi fans continue to do what they do best and moan up a storm about its current state. Inception had elements of it, and the Star Trek reboot was packed with it. But many of these somewhat Sci-Fi films cater more for the mainstream than the people with Silent Running posters on their walls. Their plots are based around fantastical technology over its theoretical possible counterpart. Then in 2009 we got Moon, a reclamation of the Sci-Fi genre by one of its biggest devotees: Duncan Jones. Well we all think he’s a devotee but in truth he became the Science Fiction Messiah so quickly that we’re still learning about him. I’m one of the legions of people that can easily wax poetic about Moon. Explorations of solace, morality and identity amidst a rich Sci-Fi background fronted by Sam Rockwell and scored by Clint Mansell, it was mind blowing. Even its film poster is one of my all-time favourites. Blatant homages and use of genre tropes made it an instant modern Sci-Fi classic. With its story revolving around the mining of Helium-3 it possessed scientific accuracies that even NASA had to admit were impressive (the film was screened for NASA at their request). All eyes were on Jones following one of the strongest directorial debuts in recent years, he reeked of potential and now had a budget big enough to show it.

Source Code is a testament to the broadness of the Science Fiction tag, while Jones had originally been at the forefront of those seeking a return to storytelling based in the technological potential of the human race, Source Code exists comfortably as a more fantastical narrative. The technology that drives the plot could never happen; it exists merely as a way to explain and ground something that is often a mystical occurrence. Brief techno babble explanations are given to allow more time for action. It’s not a natural progression from Moon but Jones maintains his Sci-Fi crown for the time being, saved by the wide criteria of his favourite genre. Source Code is a thriller film, it dedicates little time to what powers it and instead opts for a popcorn action feel.

Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) opens his eyes to find himself on a Chicago train. He has no memory of what brought him there. The beautiful stranger opposite him however seems to know him, but not as the person that he thinks he is. She is Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) who is apparently a friend of his, but why is she calling him Sean and why does the ID in his wallet say Sean Fentress? You don’t want to know these answers before watching the film so you might want to stop reading. I’m not going to spoil any major plot points but knowing nothing at all will certainly help your enjoyment. Colter is meant to know nothing and unravelling the plot along with him must be the best way to approach the film. This is unfortunately a luxury that the current state of film trailers deprived me of.

Overwhelming confusion and disorientation leads him to the trains’ toilet, and a reluctant stare into the mirror confirms his fears. He isn’t Captain Colter Stevens. The man looking back at him is Sean Fentress, who is visually represented as a different actor in reflections to achieve this effect. The Gyllenhaal-less reflection only makes his state of mind more fucked and before we can speculate if he’s insane or not he’s dead as an explosion rips through the train killing everyone aboard. Yet he now finds himself suspended in his familiar army attire in an unfamiliar chamber. He is now himself but this mental health shattering morning continues when Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) appears on a screen and demands to know who destroyed the train. Finally granted a reprieve by proving he knows nothing, this poor man is made privy to exactly what the fuck is going on with extensive exposition. He is inside Source Code a program that allows a participant to exist within the last eight minutes of a person’s life. Entrants maintain their free will, and can move freely and take actions that the original possessor of the memories didn’t do. Colter just experienced the last eight minutes of Sean Fentress’ life. A passenger who was killed on a train bombing that morning. The attack was the first in series of proposed attacks in Chicago with the attackers responsible promising to make their next suckers nuclear. Colter must go back into the Source Code and locate the bomber so the following attacks can be prevented. He remains unsure but is quickly convinced to serve his country and retries the Source Code. Several repetitions of Fentress’ final minutes are seen with Colter’s growing familiarity of it becoming a vital part of his arsenal.

Source Code finds time to explore themes of human relationships and the concepts of strangers in spite of its rapid pacing. The rapidity doesn’t even phase its romance subplot; Colter has intercepted a budding relationship between Sean and Christina, with him seemingly awakening in the middle of one of their many flirtatious conversations on their daily commute. Christina has been waiting for him to make his move, mistaking Colter’s weird behaviour for a new found spontaneity in Sean. All the groundwork has been done, enabling Colter to come in and sweep her straight off of her feet. Colter can see it and seeing her openly forward interest in him his own interests change suite, setting himself the task of saving her and everyone aboard the train by ignoring insistences that he can’t change the past. It’s a unique romance, from Christina’s perspective it’s completely just. She has all the pretext. Colter develops his romantic interest through a series of eight minute sequences with her memory being reset every time. He must have the perfect eight minutes to get what he wants. You can argue that he’s taking advantage of her, negating to tell her that he isn’t the man she originally fell for; this could’ve destroyed the romance plot thread if it weren’t for Gyllenhaal’s abundance of charm.

Jake Gyllenhaal is much more of a drawing force for Source Code than Duncan Jones is, and he rightly gets to play leading man. His performance seems a result of a collaboration with Jones rather than of following instructions. An approach similar to how he worked with Sam Rockwell in Moon. Jones lets the film be actor lead rather than an auteur piece. The direction is brilliant but the character is as Jake Gyllenhaal as any of his other performances, semi-serious and light hearted. With such a high concept anything else would be unwise, in a reality with no consequences why would you have any fear of, or a regard for public perception? Humanity bleeds into his character during emotional revelations that break down any concerns over his number of dimensions. Developing from maniac confusion to gleeful exploitation his character is a joy to watch. Ridiculously gorgeous Michelle Monaghan is another highlight with her repeated flirtations never failing to be sweet and Vera Farmiga adds an unavoidable ethical element with her torn loyalties.

Jones has created a more modern Sci-Fi film rather than following the themes established in his revivalist debut. This change in focus may not be a necessarily conscious one as Source Code wasn’t penned by him unlike Moon, it was written by newcomer Ben Ripley. While it’s a great script you have to think that Jones is producing other people’s scripts as a way of further proving himself. He got to show what he can do with a substantial budget but not with one of his own scripts and when that project happens it’s going to be exciting. He’s a great director of actors and his traits can now be identified as his body of work increases, including a strange auteur identifier involving Chesney Hawkes and beautiful uses of freeze frame. Source Codes presentation is pretty seamless, with only mild and unimportant niggles residing in an ending that would’ve benefited from a better sense of ambiguity and an incredibly mixed musical score: which shouts loudly in your face to remind you you’re in an action film.

Jones moves onwards on his quest to make interesting Science Fiction films. A quest that he has so far achieved in both Indie and big budget studio contexts, considering he’s a newcomer in both areas that’s impressive. His second feature is a form of intelligent filmmaking that’s worth reliving again and again.