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People kept telling me to see Source Code by comparing it to Inception, which I didn't like. By avoiding all PR about the new Jake Gyllenhaal movie I managed to walk into it cold, something that's increasingly difficult to do these days. 1 I really enjoyed this movie. The premise is not exactly brilliant but both Ben Ripley's characters and Duncan Jones' direction are excellent. The opportunity to spend time with these people would have made a movie with a silly plot worthwhile.
My synopsis isn't going to be very detailed, for reasons that anyone who has seen Source Code will understand. Helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) finds himself on a speeding commuter train with a lovely young woman (Michelle Monaghan) who claims she's his girlfriend and is convinced that he's someone else. Every so often, he appears in sort of a black capsule/experimental chamber, talking to Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), a military officer who tells Colter that he has only a few minutes to locate a bomb that will explode and kill everyone on the train. Colter tries to "get with the program" but is frustrated by the task, and suspicious of Goodwin's motives. Nothing that's happening to him makes sense. Why isn't he in a helicopter in Afghanistan?
Besides conjuring the ghost of inception, viewers have been calling Source Code a Sci-fi variation on Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray romantic fantasy about a guy doomed to repeat and re-live a single calendar day. But the real source of Source Code goes way back to some classic stories. Argentinian Luis Borges wrote the granddaddy of alternate Universe tales The Garden of Forking Paths in 1941, but the similar concept that really applies in this case is from Philip K. Dick. In the science fiction author's UBIK (1969), dead people are maintained in special custodianship called "half-life", where they can be rendered mentally conscious for short periods of time. Unfortunately, various forms of telepathy have also become common, and a particularly "strong" half-lifer finds that he is able to extend his mental influence beyond his burial chamber to the chambers of other half-lifers around him. He "steals" the bits of life left in his neighbors, and uses their combined brainpower to create fantastic illusory worlds.
In Source Code the process by which Colter's consciousness is projected onto the moving train is explained by a scientist/bureaucrat (Jeffrey Wright) in old-fashioned sci-fi doublespeak: "We can move the minute hand on your clock back eight minutes, but this is not a time machine". What the process really resembles is a role-playing game (RPG). Colleen Goodwin coaches Colter during downtime breaks, before he returns to the train for another attempt. Just as in a computer game, Colter repeatedly fails, his brainwaves are reset to zero, and he gives it another try. Time and again, Colter Stevens re-appears on the doomed train, and encounters the same fifteen people going through the same motions. Thus the sense of similarities to Groundhog Day.
The movie is exciting and engaging because Colter is eminently identifiable. He's lost and confused and resents being given the mushroom treatment by his handlers, who he sees only on TV monitors. We learn what's going on as he learns, right from the moment that he looks in a mirror and sees someone else's face staring back at him. His first foolish attempts to thwart the bomb plot fail for obvious reasons -- he loses his temper and hits somebody, or otherwise draws too much attention to himself. His subsequent tries become more sophisticated, but he remains hampered by the knowledge that his fellow passengers surely see him as a maniac running amuck. He's behaving just like somebody arrested for dangerous, crazy behavior: "There's a fantastic conspiracy afoot, see, and I'm like a secret agent from another dimension here to solve the problem!" Philip K. Dick reportedly experienced days like that, in real life.
Source Code benefits from some sharp digital effects but doesn't depend on them. As Colter shifts gears between the train and the experimental capsule, we're treated to bizarre transition effects, which play like hallucinations. It's interesting that editor Paul Hirsch is a veteran from the 70s, who experimented with Brian De Palma's wild split-screen effects and was a main cutter on Star Wars. The editing here is masterful in its clarity, and its avoidance of flashy gimmicks.
It seems that only in the 1990s did movies really embrace these complex 'alternate reality' concept fantasies that require the exposition of a parallel world: The Matrix, Memento, etc. Target youth audiences are apparently ready for more complicated storylines. It's probable that stories are at least superficially more complex due to Computer Generated Imagery, which can now conjure any fantasy visuals that writers can imagine. Back in 1899 Georges Melies was quick to exploit the idea of film as "time converted into a ribbon of images", a science fiction concept in itself. Roll the image back, and you've effectively turned back time. Source Code "pushes back the minute hand" and replays time from any number of possible viewpoints.
Luckily, the anti-terrorism angle to the movie's threat becomes a secondary issue to Colter's personal issues. A nuclear bomb is painted like an American flag, indicating a right-wing nutcase, but the madman's eventual motivation turns out to be generic, apolitical. Source Code stresses the personal -- Jeffrey Wright's bureaucrat takes the credit for a security breakthrough by claiming his program is a 'powerful weapon in war on terror'. As in 1987's RoboCop, he needs volunteers willing to serve their country's Homeland Security by becoming disembodied computerized ghosts. The difference is that Source Code's outlook is not cynical. We accept the fact that the Intelligence experts will patronize and lie to Colter, but Ben Ripley's script finds a "forking path" resolution that allows Colter to end things on a happy note, with a party for the Victims of Terrorism and a train going (ahem) into a tunnel. 2
We're told that Source Code is actually a fairly budget-conscious film project, the kind that Roger Corman would approve of. Characters have one change of wardrobe and everybody works in 'compartmentalized' sections of the story. If he had to, director Jones could film Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright totally independently of Michelle Monaghan and the characters on the train. A limited number of scenes take place outside the train car, and some of the views of the train in motion look to be CGI enhanced. The film has its share of elaborate digital effects work, but not as much as a typical Sci-Fi fantasy. Some of the train crash shots don't even look that good, but the movie isn't about explosions so that's not a problem. The average viewer will be encouraged to look for more shows starring the interesting actors Monaghan and Farmiga, and to appreciate Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as a standard nice guy -- there aren't many actors around anymore who play likeable all that well.
Summit Entertainment's Blu-ray of Source Code is a good-looking disc of a movie with a stylized "look" for its various settings. It seems that part of the movie was shot on film, and others on two different HD systems, for visual contrast. All I noticed is that colors are muted in the 'security' interiors. The Blu-ray aspect ratio is opened up a tad from the theatrical 1:85 to 1:78, hardly a difference.
A fancy Access: Source Code extra is a trivia track pass with enhanced features like detours to scientific thought about some of the concepts in the movie. The straight commentary with Duncan Jones, Ben Ripley and Jake Gyllenhaal is a pleasant listen. At the end of the commentary, the three creatives critique the odd state of affairs at the film's open-ended fade-out, and jokingly suggest ideas for a sequel. Jones' previous picture was the intelligent and tricky Sci-Fi thriller Moon. That story is also about a "worker" being given the mushroom treatment by his superiors. It was well received, and hopefully the success of Source Code will lead to even more interesting projects. Unlike so many modern fantasy directors Jones values actors and characterizations, and he should go far.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Source Code Blu-ray rates:
1. I mean, attendees of Comic-Con already know the plots and details about most of the fantasy movies we'll be seeing next year. For the price of "insidership" we've lost contact with the simple pleasure of discovering a movie for one's self. (this rant rating low; only 2.5)
2. At this point I must brag that I saw the "Garden of Forking Paths" theme coming. After the first few "goes" at the 8-minute mystery, the girlfriend played by Michele Monaghan suddenly appears in a different initial position, suggesting that a different alternate reality had already been initiated. How Colter sends a text message from one alternate reality to another, however, is too much for me. I'm a one-twist-in-the-time-space-continuum-at-a-time kind of guy.
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T'was Ever Thus.