Monday, April 11, 2011

663 - Source Code review

The weakness of Duncan Jones’ sci-fi thriller “Source Code” doubles as its virtue: here we have a film that wants to be mostly brains with a bit of heart, but turns out to be mostly heart with a bit of brains. There’s nothing wrong with either, but since the film starts on one track and segues into another, we’re left with either two separate films, or half of one, depending on how you look at it.

It’s this tonal imbalance that will ultimately prevent “Source Code” from taking any sort of special place in film canon, which is a shame. Consistently engaging with the usual thriller language (bomb plots, twists, villains, deadly encounters) and perfectly functional as light sci-fi, it’s the performers who imbue the story with an empathetic voice that reaches for human truths.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Army Captain Colter Stevens, who understandably panics when he awakens from his tour in Afghanistan to find himself trapped in a stranger’s body. The man’s on a train, which after a few minutes, explodes, killing everyone on board. Then Stevens wakes up in a capsule, where he meets Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), apparently his new commanding officer, and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), one of those scientists who works tirelessly to save human life while seemingly caring nothing about it.

It turns out that Stevens sits at the core of a nifty piece of technology that allows Stevens to occupy the physical body of a train passenger for the eight minutes preceding the train’s destruction. Stevens receives a mission: find the bomber, presumably a passenger, responsible for the carnage . When the eight minutes runs out, he goes back to the capsule, ready to brief his superiors and give the scenario another shot.

But there’s a sinister catch to the device not initially apparent. Though Stevens gets to relive that eight minutes in different ways, the experience doesn’t constitute time travel so much as another plane of existence. Saving the passengers and stopping the bomb doesn’t bring them back from the dead, as what he sees are just echoes of the memories of the passengers. This gives Stevens’ adventures on the train a decidedly fatalistic tone.

And there’s where the drama gets compelling. Through repetition, he gets to know the passengers, particularly Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a pretty, kind woman who he begins every eight minute period with. There remain lives to be saved by success, but what about the train passengers, who Stevens becomes familiar with?

Beyond the train, Stevens discovers another complication with the technology, one not to be revealed here. Gyllenhaal’s performance carries the story through its developments and hurdles with considerable fortitude. Gyllenhaal has evolved into an actor, who, despite a penchant for bleak roles, carries an aura of moral clarity suited for heroics. Farmiga puts in great work as his officer who places high value on both the mission and a sense of obligation to her subordinate, possibly in that order. And are there any working actresses who can better balance adorable luminosity with a womanly sensibility than Monaghan?

Duncan Jones’ (son of rock star David Bowie) first film was 2009’s “Moon,” about a solitary astronaut occupying a mining outpost on the moon. Both that and “Source Code” share the same DNA; both concern good men who find themselves deviously trapped by technology, trying to discern a way out of a situation that appears hopeless. Both films waver in the final moments in favor of a conclusion more suited to the uplifting than the cerebral. Both are excellent, but just out of reach of film canon.

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