Sunday, April 03, 2011

Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011)

In 2009, Duncan Jones debut, Moon, was released. He had written and directed the film and was quickly catapulted to the top of up and coming young directors. Having written that film, as well as directing it, he proved he could craft a deeply thoughtful film about the nature of identity with a warm, clear eyed humanity at its heart. It was great science fiction for adults. Source Code is Jones second outing, a film which is equally successful in fulfilling it's aims, though those aims are very different.

Source Code is about an army helicopter pilot who suddenly wakes up on a train in suburban Chicago, in a body that is not his own. Following eight minutes of the kind of disturbance which would be expected from waking up suddenly in someone else's body, the train blows up. And then Captain Colter Stevens (played effectively by Jake Gyllenhall), wakes up again, this time inside some kind of small pod or cockpit, with an Air Force officer speaking to him through a monitor, attempting to glean from him any information he may have been able to learn about the nature of the cause of the explosion. The point of all this is that Capt. Stevens is part of a program called The Source Code, which can send a person backwards in time, into the shoes of another person, during a specific event for eight minutes at a time. The trains explosion is the event under investigation this time, and Capt. Stevens is sent into this event to attempt to discover who planted the bomb, in hopes of preventing a second attack, the threat of a dirty bomb being detonated in the middle of downtown Chicago.

Source Code is a very good popcorn movie. I should make clear that I have nothing at all against popcorn movies. I have a definite distaste for any kind of movie which is so cynically derivative that it never attempts to have it's own voice or any film which never attempts to develop anything like story, character or narrative themes because it's counting on the the audiences familiarity with the tropes and clich├ęs of the genre of film it's attempting to imitate. There are great popcorn movies, but it's also probably the kind of movie which is most often lazily thrown together with the hopes that the audiences will see some exciting but familiar scenes in a trailer and flock to the theaters. Duncan Jones has succeeded in crafting a popcorn movie that is exciting, compelling, smart, and has the same warm heart that made Moon such a special film. He demonstrates that he can make a more mainstream science fiction adventure film which is a cut above the majority of other big budget science fiction films by focusing on characters who have a fundamental decency at their core and by presenting the audience with philosophical conundrums that aren't easily solved. He also proves he can take a script written by someone else and carry it through to developing it into a film that demonstrates the same degree of confidence, understanding and ability equal to that of a film he had written himself. Source Code manages to strike a strange balance by only really being about explosions and the trappings of the action/adventure genre in a secondary way. The real story of Source Code is in Captain Colter Stevens, his choices in the face of what he's presented with, and the actions he chooses to take. Jake Gyllenhaal exudes a basic, simple decency that makes him one of the more believable and authentic "movie stars" working in Hollywood today. He takes some difficult material and makes it very easy for the audience to get on board and go for the ride that he is trying to convince them to take. In the beginning of the film, his dis-ease with the situation he finds himself in is perfectly offset by the way he plays the characters military background.
Michelle Monaghan plays opposite Gyllenhaal as Christina Warren, the traveling companion and romantic interest of the man whose body Gyllenhaal is dumped into. Monaghan has had very few opportunities to demonstrate her talents as an actress. Most of her other roles have been in light romantic comedies and a few other big budget action films that cast her as the necessary and too standard love interest. Although she is cast again as the love interest opposite the films primary protagonist, Source Code is somewhat different from the roles she's had in other action films in that this one is at the very center of the films narrative and is the window through which the film makes the journey from being about the kind of nebulous, generic "bomb plot" to being about something more concrete. It becomes very much about Captain Stevens realization that the people on this train that he is trying to save, despite the protestations of the source code's military minders who claim that nothing he changes matters because none of it is actually real, are just people living their lives on a day to day basis, not just numbers of the dead.
Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright play the Air Force officer who is Captain Stevens contact and the scientist who created the source code. Farmiga has been following a renegades path to stardom by passing on many of the kinds of star vehicles up and coming actresses usually jump at to establish their place in the "industry marketplace." Starring in The Departed was the role which afforded her the greatest commercial recognition, but she's been building a reputation as a strong and versatile actress by taking smart, well written roles and giving great performances in those roles. She brings some real subtlety to her role as Colleen Goodwin, adding another performance to that growing reputation. Jeffrey Wright does a great job as he venal and ambitious scientist in charge of the source code program, a villainous role he hasn't had the opportunity to sink his teeth into. Wright is one of the most unfortunately over looked actors in Hollywood. He's a great actor with a powerful intensity which can be beautifully mixed with a touching sense of the more fragile aspects of humanity. Here he proves he can just as surely handle bureaucratic villainy. In the early days of the Iron Man franchise, I was hoping to see Wright get a shot as Rhodey, Tony Starks best friend and conscience so that he may gain some of the recognition he deserve.

I can recommend Source Code to just about anyone, without a seconds hesitation. Though it lacks some of the visual elegance and heady themes of Moon, it's still an enjoyable film that provides some thought provoking ideas and questions. It's pacing and performances are sure to keep audiences invested in the story. It's a great spring time film, in that it is an action film, but is also more thoughtful and intelligent than the summer movie season tends to tolerate. With the sure onslaught of very large, very dumb spectacle films on the way, I'd heavily suggest getting out to see Source Code.

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