Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden
PG-13 (for some violence including disturbing images, and for language)
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Good science fiction is entertaining. Great science fiction is thought-provoking. Source Code strives for the designation “great” and almost succeeds.
Two years ago, Duncan Jones directed his first film, the celebrated sci-fi feature Moon. Critics were enamored and although the film didn’t do much at the box office, there was enough potential there for greatness as a director that he was handed Ben Ripley’s time-bending screenplay about a solider sent into a computer program to relive the last 8 minutes of the life of a man on a terrorist-bombed passenger train in hopes that he can pull from the deceased’s mind enough information to reveal the identity of the culprit and stop him from detonating a more devastating bomb deep in the heart of Chicago.
Jake Gyllenhaal, an actor whose ability to draw audiences has been seriously questioned in the last couple of years, may suffer most from a poor selection of projects that studios feel will enable him to bring young women to the theater, but which ultimately turn them away. His two most recent failures were the Summer tent pole Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which was a poorly executed rendering of a popular video game. It wasn’t that Gyllenhaal didn’t have the charisma to carry the film, it was that the film itself was riddled with plot holes, poor dialogue and predictable situations. Then came the early Oscar contender Love and Other Drugs which failed to clique with audiences or the Academy and left both Gyllenhaal and co-star Anne Hathaway without any chance at Oscar nominations last year. Once again, it wasn’t Gyllenhaal or Hathaway that failed to sell the film as both give fine performances.
So, once again the studios are trying to put Gyllenhaal forward as a box office draw and this time they have the kind of film that really should do well, but may end up being too cerebral for the type of cinemagoers who tend towards multiple repeat viewings. Gyllenhall heads a solid cast as the put-upon soldier Colter Stevens, trapped inside a giant machine designed to interact with his neural pathways and guide him into the last moments of a dead man. Jones’ direction of Gyllenhaal helps give him the edge he hasn’t had since Ang Lee guided him to his first Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain six years ago. He’s joined by the charming Michelle Monagham who plays Christina Warren, the frequent commuter who has taken a fancy to the man whose mind Stevens has invaded. The two share suitable chemistry together and provide a convincing portrait of a slowly-realized relationship.
Controlling the capsule in which Stevens finds himself is Colleen Goodwin portrayed by the always interesting Vera Farmiga who must convince him to carry on with the mission despite his serious misgivings and the eventual realization that something is very wrong. Farmiga’s Goodwin is straight-laced and unsympathetic as the film begins, but his passion convinces her to care about his well-being and eventually to begin pushing against her superior, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the lead programmer unconcerned with his subject’s well-being when it means not only the thwarting of a potentially deadly terrorist attack, but also validates his years of research.
The film has a number of twists that pop up throughout the story. Each one might have been the denouement of other films, but here are simple revelations of crucial information the audience needs to puzzle out the truth of the film. About half way into the film, the audience learns a key piece of data that complete alters their perception of the film’s ultimate goal, which is further upended as the film goes along, each revelation adding a layer of complexity that could easily confuse those not focusing enough on the narrative.
Jones’ handling of the material reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg who explored the nuances of human perseverance, emotional connection and man’s interaction with science. Although Spielberg’s first sci-fi masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind is far superior to Source Code, some psychological elements are there. It is clear early on how much admiration Jones has for the genre. He takes his time conveying information to the audience, giving them tidbits of information that, by the end of the film, flow together in the most logical manner possible. And with a film that delves so deeply into temporal mechanics, the chance for paradox becomes strong and increases dramatically as the film goes one, but when the final twist comes and the audience is finally exposed to the ultimate event, any concern of a paradox is dismissed utterly.
What separates a populist feature like Star Wars and a ruminative piece like Blade Runner is its ability to take complex sociological, psychological and political ideas and wrap them in a cloak of entertainment. Some films are more successful than others, which is how we end up with movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as exemplary embodiments of the genre. Source Code is the kind of film that works hard to achieve the title “great” and almost succeeds; however, there’s just something a bit too populist about the film’s closure that barely keeps it from joining pantheon of great science fiction films.
Source Code still an entertaining film and there is plenty of room to discuss the implications of emotionless science, the power of success and the threat of losing our humanity. It’s a movie that requires deeper exploration of its ideas, but subsists enough as entertainment to perhaps bring a more wide-ranging audience into the mixture and could perhaps teach them something about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
April 10, 2011