Friday, April 1, 2011

Source Code: Tick ... tick ... tick

Source Code (2011) • View trailer for Source Code
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, violence and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.1.11

Some stories are gangbusters on the printed page, but far less successful on the big screen. The mediums are distinct, each with advantages and disadvantages; what can feel elegant, lyrical and intriguing as prose can wind up clumsy, tiresome and contrived as a film. There's no getting around the fact that we imagine certain concepts better in our minds, while reading; being confronted by a visual adaptation in real time winds up less satisfying.
Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) hasn't the faintest idea how he wound up
traveling on this particular train, nor does he understand why Christina
(Michelle Monaghan) flirtatiously chats him up with such familiarity; she's a
complete stranger to him. But she — and everybody else on this Chicago-bound
train — are about to become very important, as Stevens gradually understands
and accepts the responsibility of a most unusual mission.

Source Code is somewhat unsatisfying, which is a shame; Ben Ripley's original screenplay is fascinating — if rather derivative — and director Duncan Jones does his best to minimize its built-in weaknesses.

The premise is classic sci-fi, the setting uneasily contemporary: A man on a Chicago-bound train (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes with a start from what feels like an unsettling dream. The woman sitting opposite (Michelle Monaghan, as Christina) obviously knows him, and chats animatedly; he hasn't the faintest idea who she is. The routine stuff of travel with a large group of strangers plays out — spilled coffee, punched tickets, impatient and oblivious passengers — while our bewildered protagonist attempts to process his disorientation. They stop once, at an outlying station, then resume their journey.

Minutes later, not far from the city, a massive explosion destroys the entire train, killing everybody on board.

Our hero comes to his senses in what looks like a simulator capsule, now suffering a similar type of dislocation. Gradually, a "handler" communicating via a monitor screen (Vera Farmiga, as Goodwin) talks him back to his own self. Military training takes hold: He's Colter Stevens, apparently participating in some sort of test, or something. Goodwin is vague about details; a fussy scientist type in the background (Jeffrey Wright, as Rutledge) orders her to "send him back."

And poof! Stevens is back on the train, resuming the ride from the same waking point, re-living the same events, although experiencing them differently, because he remembers everything from the first time around. But the outcome is the same: Eight minutes later, the bomb goes off and everybody dies ... at which point, he regains consciousness back in the simulator. Or whatever it really is.

Stevens gradually learns — as do we — that he's part of a military/scientific emergency operation that has been mobilized in the wake of the aforementioned catastrophe. Somebody has blown up the train, whether terrorists or a lone loony, and has threatened to explode an even larger device in the heart of Chicago. Through means we really don't need to obsess about, Stevens' consciousness can be "projected" into one of the train passenger's minds, shortly before the catastrophe, in effect taking over that person's body and soul. Because of the nature of the explosion, deductive logic suggests that the bombmaker is within viewing range of the train, perhaps initially as one of the passengers. Stevens' assignment is to figure out who is responsible, and then convey this information back to HQ, so that the impending larger attack can be stopped.

Unfortunately, the technology only allows Stevens to enter the subject's consciousness during his final eight minutes of life. On the positive side, this process can be repeated as often as necessary, allowing Stevens to consider different "suspects" and attempt different actions each time: Groundhog Day, writ seriously.

Which brings us to this film's primary weakness.

2008's Vantage Point, a wholly disposable thriller, involved the attempted assassination of the American president, as experienced — separately — by roughly a dozen characters. The essential concept here isn't new; it was the driving force behind director Akira Kurosawa's 1950 classic, Rashomon, where we shared the viewpoints of four different people in order to arrive at the "truth" of the rape/murder in which each was involved. Kurosawa handled this gimmick brilliantly, minimizing repetition while exploring the thoughts, actions and evasive subsequent behavior of each "witness."

Not so in Vantage Point, where the filmmakers repeated the build-up and shooting over and over and over and over again, to the point viewers wanted to scream. Indeed, I still recall the groans of frustration the fifth or sixth time we were forced to re-live the same scenes. And we still weren't done.

Much as Jones tries to avoid this — and I give him credit for the effort — familiarity breeds the same contempt here. The eight-minute sequence is too brief; there's not enough time to expand Stevens' activities in a manner that becomes sufficiently interesting. Christina always starts their initial conversation the same way, and the radiance of Monaghan's flirtatious smile doesn't lessen the extreme déjà vu. The bomb still goes off, and a bit more distressingly each time, because now we've gotten to know the players.

I first recall encountering this storytelling gimmick in an episode of the 1960s TV series, The Outer Limits. Two visiting Martians, intrigued by the uniquely Earthian act of murder, conducted a "Controlled Experiment" (the episode's title) by clandestinely interfering with a woman's shooting of the "two-faced, no good, black-hearted two-timer" who done her wrong. The Martians, possessing a short-term time machine, re-wound the events over and over, changing a little detail here, an event there, trying to work things out so that the murder wasn't inevitable.

Fascinating concept, then as now. Tedious execution. The filmmakers couldn't surmount the been there/seen that repetition ... and that was in a TV episode that ran 51 minutes.

Jones wisely paces his film efficiently and economically, which clocks in at a slick 90 minutes. And, in fairness, there's a lot more going on in Ripley's screenplay, which borrows heavily from the aforementioned Rashomon and echoes a slick 1951 John D. MacDonald novel called Wine of the Dreamers, along with (without question) an Ambrose Bierce short story called "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," adapted into a memorable 1962 French short film that was televised to American viewers in 1964, as an episode of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone.

Additionally, for those who'd prefer I cite more recent fare, we can point to writer/director Peter Howitt's fascinating 1998 fantasy, Sliding Doors, which follows the two divergent paths taken by its heroine (Gwyneth Paltrow), depending on whether she does or doesn't catch a train. This notion is perhaps the most beguiling: If you stop reading this review right now, your life will proceed in a particular direction. Is there a parallel universe where your alternate self does finish reading this piece, and therefore leads a wholly different existence? Multiply this by the number of random choices we make in a given day, and the metaphysical results can become overwhelming.

But I digress...

Although Source Code probably would be better if Ripley minimized the details behind what is taking place here — simply got on with it, granting us the intelligence to keep up, rather than trying to explain anything — events periodically bog down in techno-babble. Let's face it: Once that bottle is uncorked, we're demanding answers to all manner of questions, including the biggie that this film never addresses: Precisely how is Stevens' consciousness being projected into this particular passenger (victim), when one assumes that nothing is left of him?

Eventually, needlessly, Rutledge goes into all sorts of pseudo-scientific detail that makes less sense as he keeps talking. Worse still, Wright does the film no favors with his jittery, badly overplayed mad scientist type. OK, fine; spit-and-polish military personnel are forever amused and annoyed by the civilian technical wizards they're ordered to serve; we expect such a cliché. But Jones allows Wright too much latitude; Rutledge becomes the sort of babbling, condescending nutball — gracious, he even walks with a limp — who'd be more at home in Dr. Frankenstein's lab, or at Dr. Strangelove's side.

Otherwise, Jones plays out the hand rather well, given the aforementioned issues. We never see the "body" that Stevens is inhabiting, except when he glances at "himself" in a mirror; we always see Gyllenhaal, just as we always saw Warren Beatty, in 1978's Heaven Can Wait. Fair enough; that's easy to roll with. And Gyllenhaal is a capable protagonist: completely believable as a guy trying to make sense of an extraordinary set of circumstances, and relying on his military training to orient and ground himself.

Monaghan works a minor miracle, making Christina interesting while forced to repeat much of the same dialogue: not a trivial task. We can see where this is heading; Christina becomes the gal who tempts Stevens to break protocol, and Monaghan pulls it off.

The most intriguing character, though, is Farmiga's Goodwin. She's the only person existing in real time, as it were, and also is the humanizing element through whose eyes we confront the increasingly ghastly details of what's really going down here. She's the character in this story who responds, reacts and evolves: the person changed by these events. Farmiga delivers a deftly nuanced performance: every bit as subtle and layered as Wright is overblown and irritating. It would appear that Jones lacks the ability to draw consistent performances from his cast members, and that's a shame; his film's tone demands consistency.

Speaking of time, that's my final objection. One can but cock an eyebrow at the eight-minute limitation; Stevens eventually starts to accomplish truly amazing things within those 480 seconds. And there's a similar "outside" problem, also affected by this film's use of time: Seems to me that the planned second, bigger bomb could have gone off five or six times, given how long it takes Goodwin and Rutledge to coax Stevens through his mission.

I like Jones' ambitions and his filmmaking style; he wrote and directed one of my favorite recent sci-fi films, 2009's Moon, a refreshingly intelligent and thoughtful little drama that was similarly constructed around a central mystery. If his reach slightly exceeds his grasp in Source Code — terrible title, by the way — the attempt remains intriguing enough to warrant the price of a ticket ... and you can't help smiling over the way Ripley's script resolves itself.

In sum then, a worthy effort, if flawed. But I'd love to have read it as a novella.

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