Monday, August 22, 2011

Source Code (2011)

Back in 2009, director Duncan Jones made a small, gripping sci-fi think-piece called Moon, which featured an outstanding performance by Sam Rockwell as an astronaut who may be losing his mind toward the end of a long stay (alone) on the moon. The film made quite a splash, and established Jones as a director who can make accessible cerebral sci-fi. Source Code is Jones' follow-up, and like Moon, it toys with the idea of a man isolated and confined, only this time he has a flashier cast, Groundhog Day-meets-Rashomon plot, and less substance.

Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a soldier who participates in a secret military project: thanks to new technology and physics, he is able to enter the memories of a victim of a terrorist attack on a Chicago train. His mission: find the bomb and the bomber in order to prevent a much larger attack. However, he only has eight minutes every time he enters the "source code," and therefore must return to the train over and over to find the bomber. Within the code, he finds himself falling for one of the doomed passengers, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), which complicates his mission. He also suspects that his superiors (Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) are hiding something from him, as they avoid answering his questions about why he's isolated in a capsule and what the source code really is.

At 93 minutes, the film moves along at a refreshingly brisk pace, avoiding the kind of bloat that would have surely dragged it down. Instead, there's plenty of action, as the train gets to explode over and over until Colter can find the bomber. Jones proves that Moon was no fluke: he finds inventive ways to change the action on the train subtly every time Colter goes back into the source code, allowing for many different situations to play out within the same eight minutes. And he raises the film's major themes without explicitly calling attention to them: the toil reliving tragedy takes on Colter's mind, for one, mines the same claustrophobic territory that Jones explored so memorably in Moon. And questions of fate are given a better, more thoughtful examination here than they were in The Adjustment Bureau. Of course, all of this is anchored by a typically-charismatic turn by Gyllenhaal, who's not doing incredible work but does serve as a compelling protagonist.

Unfortunately, the same doesn't go for all of the actors. Monaghan is given the thankless role of one-dimensional love interest, and though she and Gyllenhaal have a little chemistry, it's not enough to make us really care about them as a couple. Similarly, the very talented Farmiga and Wright are ultimately exposition machines, explaining the situations and the source code without actually having real characters to play. It's a shame to see the two of them wasted like this, and even though they both get some moments in the end to do something with their roles, it's too little too late. That's really the biggest quibble I have with Source Code as a whole: there's never really any time to create characters, with the exception of Colter. The result is that the film tickles the brain, but misses the heart.

That's not necessarily a knock against Source Code. It's a great little sci-fi thriller, one that will one day be seen as a minor gem in an increasingly bloated genre. There may not be much heart, and not much in the way of female characters (something this genre is severely in need of more of), but it's an exciting and thoughtful film. B+/B

*I haven't quite decided on the grade yet. I'll change it when I decide.

No comments: