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Non-Review Review: Source Code

A special thanks to the guys over at movies.ie for sneaking us into an advanced preview screening.

Duncan Jones really grabbed our attention with Moon, one of the most boldly original films of the last decade. However, it’s often the second film of a promising young director that is the most fascinating to watch, as the weight of expectation is measured against a (typically) larger budget and profile. Too many young talents fizzle out or stumble at the second hurdle. I’m glad to report that Jones manages to make it safely across. While Source Code might lack the power of his debut, it’s still a fascinating little science-fiction thriller, one I’m still thinking of hours after I left the screening. And that is certainly a mark of quality.

Has Colter gone off the rails?

I won’t discuss the plot too much, as – like Moon – part of the joy of the film is how it plays with various expectations or preconceptions the audience might have. If you’ve watched the trailers, you have a vague idea of what is coming. If you want to see it completely unspoiled, more power to you. It follows disoriented U.S. soldier Colter Stevens as he wakes up on a train to Chicago wearing another man’s face and carrying another man’s identity. He has no idea of how he got there, or what he’s meant to do. When a bomb explodes, killing everybody on the train, Colter wakes up inside a strange contraption with a disembodied voice speaking to him from “Beleaguered Castle.” He’s then sent right back to where he started, to play out the scenario again and again and again.

“You have eight minutes to save the world,” comes the voice from his connection to the world outside the strange device he finds himself trapped in. Stevens is not so convinced. “Eight minutes until I die again,” he corrects her, as he finds himself back on the train. Each time he goes back, the key beats remain the same – but he also discovers minor variations and fluctuations. “It’s the same train,” he explains to a confused passenger, “but different.”

Can he read the signs?

On the surface, Source Code is a fairly conventional genre film. It certainly isn’t “heavy” science fiction in the same way that, say, Twelve Monkeys would be. It’s essentially constructed as a fairly straight-forward mystery thriller – and a fairly interesting one at that. instead of developing clues over the course of two hours, the film’s whole mystery unfolds in eight minutes. However, Stevens gets a chance to replay those eight minutes, each time learning a little bit more and getting a bit closer to solving it all. I’m quite proud of the fact I “got it” straight away (if only by following genre conventions).

From this perspective, the film is a solidly entertaining thriller. I hope that it will find a wide audience, because it’s certainly very “accessible.” However, there’s a lot more going on underneath. Once you get past the fairly standard thriller trappings, the movie dares to ask some very probing and fascinating questions – ones which are far more interesting than any plot involving an exploding train. Yeah, take that, Unstoppable! (I kid because I love.)

It's well worth the leap...

You might scoff at the concept of the film. It almost sounds like somebody is attempting to play Groundhog Day seriously. In fact, the “source code” itself is a rather ridiculous plot device that requires significant suspension of disbelief. “It’s very complicated,” the bitter Doctor Rutledge dismissively explains to Stevens when drawn on what exactly is going on. He spouts out pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo (including combinations of “quantum”, “synapses” and “hard drive”), followed with a very Star Trek analogy. As Fry explained in Futurama, “Usually on the show, they came up with a complicated plan, then explained it with a simple analogy.” Rutledge does that, grudgingly.

However, once you get past the somewhat ridiculous way that the device is meant to work, it provides some interesting philosophical questions. Much as the setting and title of Moon were red herrings as to identity as the key theme of the film, the framing device and set-up are somewhat misleading here. While Source Code may appear to involve some measure of time travel, it’s not necessarily about the typical quandaries that one might expect. Instead, the movie thinks somewhat laterally and raises intriguing questions about the nature of reality.

Do we have a Colt hit on our hands?

Stevens is repeatedly assured by those outside the device that the people he sees are not “real” in any material sense. Rutledge, who claims to be sensitive to the potential loss of human life, even urges Stevens to use any means at his disposal to clean information from the passengers. “They are already dead,” Rutledge assures the soldier as he goes in again. However, they aren’t dead to Stevens. Every time he goes back in, he finds himself face-to-face with Christina – and he finds himself attracted to her, a bond and connection growing between the two of them.

Is the train real to Stevens? Or is it just a simulation? The movie pulls several clever little tricks about perception and reality – some of the conversations are exactly what we see them to be, but they aren’t happening in the manner that we think they are. I’m sorry to be cryptic. The train explodes, everybody dies – and yet they live, repeatedly, through the interactions with Steven. It’s an interesting little idea, and one which is well-developed over the course of what might appear on the surface to be a very typical science fiction thriller.

Strap yourself in...

There are also some interesting political points scored by the movie, particularly about how we relate to the past – and how our philosophies about those events shape the future more than the events themselves. Rutledge repeatedly advocates that the train must always blow up. When Stevens suggests the explosion could be stopped, Rutledge shoots him down. “It doesn’t work that way,” he offers by way of explanation. of course, one gets the sense that Rutledge is smart enough to know that, if the train doesn’t explode, he doesn’t get to prove his theories. In time travel, it’s what most geeks will recognise as a paradox, but – as the movie asserts – “source code is not about time travel.”

While Rutledge doesn’t want innocent people to die, he has a vested interest in using that tragedy to his own ends. It suits Rutledge to have those people dead, so he can save more. It never even occurs to him, so set is he in his ways, that he could somehow change the past, because that would undermine the present – which he has a vested interest in maintaining, as he is being vindicated. You could make a whole manner of sordid connections to various conspiracy theories, but that’s not where I’m going with this.

Love on the line?

To an extent, Rutledge is right. You can’t rewrite history. You can’t resurrect the dead and pretend that everything is fine. However, you can change the way that you act towards these tragedies. You can focus on the loss, the death, the tragedy, and use that to vindicate your own agenda (he refers to source code as a “weapon in the War on Terror”), or you can perhaps learn from the experience and make something new. You can be reactive or proactive. Those are the choices that we make – Stevens lives through agony on each trip in, but we get the sense that through the pain, he gains something. If we engage with the past, rather than treating it as simple justification for the present, perhaps the world might be a better place.

Perhaps I’m waffling.

But you know what? I’m thinking about it. I’m loving it. I’m trying to figure out what it all means, or if it all has a point. I’m looking forward to seeing it again, which is always a good sign (and something that happens too rarely when you see so many films in a week). In short, it does what science fiction does at its best – it challenges its audience to think about what it proposes and then play the ideas out to their logical conclusions.

He's not trained for this...

The ending, I suspect, will divide viewers. Some will see it as a cheap copout, only stuck in because the movie needed a “twist.” Others will see it as a logical continuation of the movie’s key themes. I started in the former camp, but I find myself leaning towards the latter. On reflection, I think it’s the best possible ending. However, that’s not the point. I like endings that spark debates and discussion. I like to think about a movie on the way home. I’m not talking about a “twist for the sake of a twist” like a hand coming out from the water or the serial killer returning from the dead, I’m talking about something which you can actually talk about. And, I suspect, people will talk about it. or they might just, as I have, accept it. But that would perhaps be a tad too dull.

The script isn’t exactly perfect. As I remarked, I could guess the resolution before it occurred – and several of the detours along the way seemed entirely predictable. Also, Rutledge’s character seems just a little too much like a “bad guy.” Wright plays the role well, but he’s written as something of a shallow stereotype. It’s possible for the character to adopt a similar philosophical stance without seeming to pause between lines to stroke his goatee (a temptation Wright shrewdly avoids). I wouldn’t mind a bit more ambiguity from the film. Still, and this is something I might talk about in another post, as I don’t want to spoil things, but I liked the movie’s outlook.

Wright or wrong?

The performances are good. Gyllenhaal is a solid lead, and Farmiga and Wright offer solid support. In particular, I love a subtle appearance from Scott Bakula. It feels only right that the lead from Quantum Leap makes an appearance about a man jumping into another’s body. Plus, in fairness, any Bakula is good Bakula. Also worth singling out is Chris Bacon. The theme which plays over the opening sequence instantly calls to mind any number of classic seventies thrillers, which is perhaps the perfect vibe for the film.

Source Code does lack some of the adult sophistication of Moon. That doesn’t mean that it’s dumb or anything like that, just that it’s written as a far more conventional film. That said, there are still a lot of layers bubbling below the surface, and there are a lot more ideas here than you’ll find in the majority of major releases. It’s an enjoyable and exciting ride, well-handled. There are a few bumps on the ride, but it certainly stays on track.

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6 Responses

  1. I skimmed over the review since after Moon, I am convinced that going into anything Jones does totally blank beyond a basic plot synopsis is wise– seriously, he make an adaption of something as well-known as The Great Gatsby and I’d still do my best to avoid spoilers– but your thumbs-up is always a good sign. Hoping to check this out this weekend.

  2. I loved this film. And I’m with you in regard to its outlook and being in the latter category regarding its ending. Excellent review.

  3. I just got home a few hours ago from The Source Code and my mind keeps swirling around and around about the possibilities. I have a question though. I might not be recalling all of the details and may have missed my answer here.. But, in the end, what becomes of the original Sean Fentress? I keep thinking that Colter was only able to inhabit Sean’s identity for that short time because Sean had died like everyone else and it’s just that “afterglow” that he was in. But, when the events turned in the end and went a different direction we didn’t really know it could, everyone went on with life but if Colter was living in Sean’s body somehow, what happened to Sean? Somehow he doesn’t seem accounted for. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

  4. One word to describe this: brilliant. I wondered what a Jones movie would look like if filtered through a shiny studio sheen and populated with a menagerie of known talents (rather than just two), and honestly felt concern that a lack of scrappy, low-tech charm might actually hurt his vision. What a silly thought that was. If nothing else, looking glossy and produced should help this movie by making it more palatable for a wider audience that missed out on the excellence of Moon.

    I’ve long said that Nolan is the sole ruler of a kingdom in which high-concept science fiction is balanced with crowd-pleasing entertainment without one element swallowing up the other, but I think given time Jones could rival the Inception director in that department, and Source Code seems to suggest that very much. On the one hand, it’s a great, taut science fiction thriller; on the other, it’s an exploration of morality and ethics in scientific progress and how the advancement of science callously disregards the humanity of one for the benefit of many.

  5. I love your summing up of this Darren, ‘a few bumps on the ride but it certainly stays on track’. Although which track are we talking about here? Can Source Code exist in two alternate genres as two parallel types of entertainment? There’s the ‘wow, what a great action movie’ reality and then there’s the ‘wow, my head hurts and I’m questioning reality’ reality. Not sure which reality Jones kept waking up in but I know which I found more entertaining. 🙂

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