Thursday, September 1, 2011

Everything As Expected: Source Code Has No Real Surprises.

The Good: Acting, Moments of concept
The Bad: Plot is obvious, Characters make little sense
The Basics: Source Code might have once had the potential to be a reality-bending cult classic, but not now.

A few days ago, I got into an argument with someone on the IMDB about the best movie of the year (2011). They admitted they had not seen many movies, but they were arguing for Source Code. I was a bit surprised. Source Code came out at a time when there were plenty of other movies I actually wanted to see and I did not go see it in theaters. In fact, I made an effort not to see it because the previews informed me from the premise that it could only end one of two ways. It was either going to be a depressing ending where the protagonist realizes he cannot change the past (which seemed pretty obvious) or a reality in the machine type story a la Repo Men (reviewed here!). Either way, it didn't strike me as anything terribly new.

Still, as a cinephile and a critic, I thought I ought to sit and watch it so as to be able to legitimately declare other movies better. Having just completed the DVD of Source Code, I am saddened to say that my anticipated disappointment lived up to the actual experience. Source Code might once have been considered a great shock movie that truly messed with the heads of viewers, but after television episodes like "Cause And Effect" (reviewed here!) and films like Repo Men, Inception and Memento there was absolutely nothing in the film that surprised me. The fact that I pulled virtually every important detail from the first fifteen minutes made the seventy minutes that followed virtually unbearable.

A man is on a train, talking with a woman who clearly knows him. She is Christina and he has identification that tells him he is Sean Fentress and a reflection in the window that is not his own. Running to the bathroom, the man is engulfed in flames and awakens in a chamber. He is Colter Stevens, an Air Force pilot who is being given orders over a camera from Colleen Goodwin. Goodwin informs him that the simulation he is a part of is part of a project, Source Code, that has him reliving the final eight minutes of a train bombing that very morning. The hope is that another disaster may be averted by having Colter as Fentress relive the final memories of those on and near the train to discover who the bomber was so they might be caught in the real world.

Stevens develops attachments in the virtual reality, mostly to Christina, and soon he is both emotionally invested in the relationship and in trying to determine where he is when he comes out of the simulation. Trapped and piecing together his existence, Stevens unravels the mystery of who the bomber is and who he is and how he came to be in the project that has him using Source Code.

Sadly, there is nothing extraordinary in Source Code. For the mystery angle, it was so simple that I never second-guessed who the bomber was. I am terribly bad at guessing mysteries, Red Riding Hood which my wife and I watched earlier this week had me second-guessing constantly. With Source Code, not only did I get the bomber, I got his reasoning on the first time through the simulation. That is how obvious the film is.

But more than that, writer Ben Ripley seems to think that his audience has never seen The Matrix (reviewed here!). This ridiculous notion makes what Ripley wants to be a big surprise be anything but. The viewer that does not question exactly where Stevens is when he awakens from the Source Code simulation is one who is not at all connected to the film or the concepts. And, as alluded to, anyone who has seen The Matrix or any other virtual reality work knows there must be an interface device. The glaring lack of that should clue the viewer in in the first few moments that all is not as it seems for poor Colter Stevens.

On the plus side, Source Code is not as bad as the previews made it seem. Most notable in this regard is that what could have been a tiresome love story between Stevens and Christina goes largely undeveloped. Colter knows that Christina is dead and he cannot save her, so there are moments as he investigates the bombing where he is able to brush her off. There is enough of an emotional tether, though that he comes to care about the mission he is on and that works well.

What also works well is the basic military mindset of Colter Stevens. Stevens is programmable, so Goodwin is able to get him to sublimate his personal desires, notably contacting his father, for the mission. Stevens is disciplined and his focus and skills pay off eventually, making for a pretty satisfying sense of basic characterization.

Unfortunately, Goodwin and her boss, Dr. Rutledge, do not work nearly as well. Goodwin's ultimate actions make less sense in a military structure and Rutledge is one of the worst written characters I've seen on screen in a long time. As Colter Stevens struggles with his nature, Rutledge talks in intellectual circles with philosophical abstracts that are more annoying than helpful. Moreover, his brutish demanding nature makes no real sense for a scientist, even one motivated by ego.

The acting in Source Code is fine. Michelle Monaghan is little more than a cute face as Christina and Jeffrey Wright plays Dr. Rutledge in a fairly monolithic way, but Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga play off one another very well. Farmiga has a great control of her face and emotes well through her eyes, making Goodwin very human. Similarly, Gyllenhaal manages to play confused and deliberate throughout the movie to make Stevens someone we almost care about.

Almost but not quite. Source Code attempts to be novel and belabors its plot functions, but Ben Ripley has nothing particularly new to say with the altered reality plot and director Duncan Jones does not make it into anything more visually impressive than we've seen before. The result is a very average film that I knock into the lower portion of the average range for insulting my intelligence.

For other works featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Love And Other Drugs
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time
Brokeback Mountain
Donnie Darko


For other films, be sure to check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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