September 5, 2011

When Am I? Marathon: Source Code (Duncan Jones)

Michelle Monaghan and Jake Gyllenhaal face down the fire in Source Code.

Source Code has intrigued me since its spring theatrical release for several reasons. Along with its time-travel premise, it's also directed by Duncan Jones, whose first film was Moon. That riveting movie was basically a one-man show for Sam Rockwell as he uncovered a stunning mystery. Working with a larger budget but still within a similar genre, Jones seemed like the perfect choice for this mind bender. Let's get to the questions before I'm forced to write this intro again!

Captain Colter Evans (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a commuter train outside of Chicago with no idea how he got there. A military helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, he's thrust into a plot to discover who planted a bomb on the train. But there's a big twist. This terrorist attack already happened, and Colter's in the body of Sean Fentriss, a passenger on that train. Pushed to discover the truth by Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), he repeats the same eight minutes (approximately) over and over. While looking for the bomber, he begins to realize that his superiors might have a few secrets of their own.

This method of time travel is called Source Code (now I get the title!), and Dr. Rutledge gives a brief explanation of its process of "time re-assignment". However, his description isn't held up by the story's resolution. I won't spoil the specific ending, but it possibly involves alternate realities that can spin off in a different direction based on Colter's actions. It could be effective to prevent an impending terrorist attack, but there may be ramifications beyond the characters' understanding. The ending makes sense within the rules of this world, but it may lose some viewers not willing to take the leap. I admit that there are some flaws if you really dig into what happens, but I'm a sucker for this type of sci-fi.

Michelle Monaghan rides the train in Duncan Jones' Source Code.

Surprisingly, the time-travel premise doesn't overwhelm the main characters, who are believable and interesting. Colter starts each sequence on the train sitting across from Christina (Michelle Monaghan), an attractive and friendly acquaintance. She thinks he's Sean, but they share a new connection in their brief time together before the explosions. While it seems like a stretch for a love story to grow in a few minutes, the actors sell the bond. In the supporting roles, Vera Farmiga does solid work as Goodwin, but Jeffrey Wright really overplays Rutledge's lack of morality. Also, there are some painfully thin characters in the small roles aboard the train. The stand-up comedian in particular is especially brutal at times.

Source Code opens with Colter waking up on the train with no idea what is happening. His confusion during the first half-hour is really well-done and effectively throws us into the story. Beyond the sci-fi premise, this is a classic example of setting a thriller in a confined space with limited time to avoid destruction. Armed with little knowledge, Colter must figure out his surroundings and try to uncover the mystery of the bombing and his superiors. Gyllenhaal does a good job in conveying this guy's confusion without overplaying it. This is a tricky performance, and the movie fails if we lose interest in his character.

Jake Gyllenhaal looks for information in Source Code.

This is another case where a character isn't traveling to a far-away time period. Instead, Colter is returning to the same events in Groundhog Day-like fashion and trying different things each time. The other characters' reactions are generally believable since they change based on what Colter does. It's too bad that the ultimate revelation of the terrorist is such a ho-hum experience. Jones doesn't seem interested in the main plot and  would rather focus on Colter's search to understand his status because of the Source Code program.This doesn't take much away from the main plot, however, as our focus is more on this unique situation than catching the enemy.

Source Code is one of those movies where you're either willing to accept the plot twists or will throw your hands up in disgust. If you accept the film's main concepts behind the time travel, there aren't any major paradoxes that don't make sense. For much of the film, we're going along for the ride with Colter and don't have more information than his character. It can be confusing, but the plot generally holds together near the end. It's a divisive finale, and a few parts of it are open to interpretation, but it works for me. Jones and Writer Ben Ripley (Species III) take some risks, an approach that's pretty rare in recent Hollywood sci-fi pictures.

Other Marathon Reviews

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
The Time Traveler's Wife
The Time Machine (1960)
Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey

8 comments:

  1. I loved this film....up to a point.

    I am one of those people that didn't like the fluffy ending. Finishing the film 5 minutes earlier would have been the perfect cut for me!

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  2. "I admit that there are some flaws if you really dig into what happens, but I'm a sucker for this type of sci-fi."

    I couldn't have put it better myself. I enjoyed it. I might add that there was a nice interview with the screenwriter at the Q&A podcast, which shred some more light on the making of the movie.

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  3. I was on board for this movie and had no problem with the plot twists. The ending was interesting although the moment where everything freezes up was a bit too much.

    I'll try to watch the original version of The Time Machine as well this week (if I manage to get my hands on it), see if we have the same opinion about it. Triangle has been on my list of movies to watch a long time and reading your time travel series I really got the feeling I should check this out soon!

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  4. Thanks for the comments!

    Scott - I see what you're saying about the ending, and I know your opinion's shared by many people. It does raise more questions, and it sort of comes out of nowhere, but it generally worked for me.

    Jessica - I'll have to check out that Q&A podcast. I've listened to a few episodes, and there's plenty to dig into in this movie.

    Nostra - I'll be interested in hearing what you think if you get the chance to see The Time Machine and Triangle. In Source Code, that freeze-up scene is a bit silly, especially with everyone laughing with the stand-up comedian.

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  5. i was so disappointed with this. especially the awful way it ended. and the score. talk about hammering your ear drums with "emotional" cues.

    i just really wanted Duncan Jones to be the new genius film maker that Moon promised and it will just have to wait for his next film for that confirmation.

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  6. I know that your opinion is shared by a decent amount of people. I enjoyed Source Code and think Jones' direction is solid, but I agree that it's not as unique a movie as Moon. I still have high hopes for his career, so it will be interesting to see what he does next.

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  7. I thought Source Code was solid but nowhere near great. The ending was a pretty big letdown and felt like a convenient device to get the movie to a decent run-time. I think the movie could have been a lot more creative, hadn't it been hamstrung by the 8-minute time limit it imposed on itself.

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  8. Castor, you make an interesting point about the 8-minute time limit. In the Q&A podcast interview, the writer said that his original screenplay had a 17-minute time limit. Do you think that would have been better? I wonder if that might have dragged for too long, but it's hard to say. I will say that the resolution of the bomber was pretty dull and could have been a lot better.

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