By Scott Martin
Source Code, Canada / France / USA, 2011
Directed by Duncan Jones
This film has Terry Gilliam’s fingerprints all over it, especially those of the Gilliam who made Twelve Monkeys (1995). But, here, the closest we get to Brad Pitt’s rambling genius is Michelle Monaghan in an adorable outfit. Better, though, is the lead performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, who has grown to have an incredibly commanding screen presence. From back in the days of Donnie Darko (2001) up until now, he’s steadily been growing on me as an actor. Then, when Brokeback Mountain (2005) came around, it all just clicked and I became one of those “insta-fans,” never looking back. Donnie Darko still sucks, but at least the guy is watchable now.
Source Code is an interesting film, directed by Duncan Jones (recall Moon from 2009). A man wakes up on a train, not knowing who he is or why he’s there. Everyone aboard seems to know him, and he seems to have a thing going with the gorgeous girl sitting across from him. Eight minutes after all of this is established, they all die. The train explodes, and our man wakes up again in a capsule of sorts (or maybe a grave, existentially) with a voice coming to him from a television set telling him this – he’s a soldier, Captain Colter Stevens, and part of an intense new system referred to as “source coding,” in which he is to travel back into a tragic accident in order to discover both what went wrong and who to blame.
His mission, regardless of whether he chooses to accept it, is to disarm a bomb on that train and hunt down the criminal behind it. Of course, this isn’t easy, and it’s exactly where the film falls apart. The ending is cheap, and you can sniff it out from the first thirty minutes; the unnecessary love interest is shoved in our face (one has to wonder if the good captain will ever tell the girl that he’s not who she thinks he is), and we get four movies for the price of one. But, this being a major studio release early in the 2011 canon, we get the one that doesn’t hold a lot of weight. Just a few decent performances and a “Huh?” kind of an ending. Not “Huh?” in that it makes no sense. “Huh?” in that “this is the best they could do?”
In one of the exits the filmmakers propose to the audience, we’d get a character study about a man who is driven to extreme violence to save thousands of lives. In another exit, we’d get a love story against incredible and unchangeable odds. In yet another exit, there’s the story of a man fighting for his country with blind faith. Instead, it’s a mash-up, with all the wrong parts and a whole lot of cacophonous dissonance. We get glimpses of a man driven to extreme violence to save lives, but no, because he’s a soldier (so that’s automatically what we’re told to expect from him), and he’s a man who fights for his country with blind faith, except that he keeps whining about it and introducing subplots that only fatten the movie, and the love story is as sustaining as a cardboard lunch.
For what the character is, and could have been, Gyllenhaal does a charming enough job. I followed him in and out of that train and he kept me engrossed in what happened next. I truly wanted him to succeed. Vera Farmiga, whom I would bet money was just there for her soothing voice and devilish beauty, and Jeffrey Wright, who sacrifices his usually soothing voice for that of Mr. Moviefone’s evil twin, are there as the people in charge of the source code program. Wright is Dr. Rutledge, the creator of the program, and Farmiga is Colleen Goodwin, the woman Skyping with Gyllenhaal throughout his ordeal.
In a film like this, where the science fiction is treated as just that, rather than fact (think Battle: Los Angeles as compared to, say, Blade Runner), it’s easy to assume that simply shutting off the brain and staring at the film is enough. The questions asked in the film about life and reality, and its many variations, aren’t answered, maybe because they don’t need to be, or maybe because there simply aren’t answers. But, for the simple fact that the inquisition is implied, the audience deserves a deeper peek at the many truths that lie in the many realities with which we are presented. Each version of the eight minutes that Gyllenhaal goes through are completely the same, yet entirely different, as the film’s premise grows more urgent. The city of Chicago faces ruin, but the most pressing matter in the film seems to be the love story: a good ol’ “will they or won’t they” in exchange for thousands of lives being saved. Sure. Let’s go with that.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com