Clever Premise Dumbed Down in Source Code
- Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2011 4 Apr
DVD Release Date: July 26, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: April 2, 2011
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence including disturbing images, and for language)
Genre: Action-Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 89 min.
Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
There’s a great deal of ambition on display in Source Code—conceptually, thematically, cinematically—that’s undercut by an unfortunate lack of faith in us, the audience, either in our level of patience or intelligence (or both). Recent box office trends may lead to that cynicism; regardless, this clever premise is progressively dumbed down.
Complex narrative layers and multiple realities pose tough ethical questions, but it’s all delivered in a mass appeal crowd pleaser that’s far too trite for its initial provocations. The end result isn’t a disaster by any stretch, but the Hollywood-style compromises neuter a potent idea into near-emasculation.
A big, brassy music score sets the tone, giving the instant feel of a classic thriller in the Hitchcockian mold. That’s no coincidence; what follows clearly aspires to such heights, and after the first five minutes you actually think the film might reach them.
Enough happens to suggest you won’t be able to predict where all of this is going, and you’ll likely have to stay on your proverbial toes just to keep up. That level of engagement is exciting … which makes subsequent exposition-laden scenes all the more tiresome.
Jake Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia) plays Colter Stevens, a man who wakes up in a haze on a Chicago commuter train not recognizing his surroundings or how he got there. Despite this disorientation, people recognize him—like the attractive brunette Christina (Michelle Monaghan, Due Date) who sits on, and flirts from, an adjacent seat. It’s not the worst hallucination in the world, mind you. Well, until the train explodes and everyone dies.
Except for Colter, that is. He wakes up again, but this time in a recognizable context: as a U.S. soldier in the cockpit of a crashed fighter jet. This is his last known memory. A frantic effort to make contact with someone is answered by Officer Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air) who is stationed back in the States.
Colter quickly learns that, instead of being rescued, he must play rescuer to millions of Chicagoans who are under threat of a second terrorist bombing. How? By planting a memory (the titular “source code”) from the mind of a victim in the original exploded train into Colter’s brain by means of a new governmental test program.
He plays and replays interactively through this memory, trying to unravel the mystery of who planted the first bomb before the second is detonated. Each pass leads to new information and a step closer to the truth. This premise is the very definition of high concept yet actually plays to lower, more common denominators.
Case in point: what happens between each eight-minute repeat. While the train memories dole out information at an appropriate pace that plays off mystery, the cockpit scenes get bogged down in an odd mix of information overload and undisclosed secrets.
On one hand, knowledge about this bizarre scenario, how it works, and how to navigate through it is laboriously unpacked to Colter (and us). The script feels obligated to explain more details than it needs to, geeking-out in its high concept, and takes too much time doing it.
On the other hand, Colter’s deeper questions—how is this happening, who is this for, is it even real, am I going to die?—go largely unanswered by Goodwin and her superior Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright, Quantum of Solace) who want Colter to stay focused on the task at hand, not why he’s in it or where it might lead to.
This ridiculous non-disclosure is the ultimate contrivance, i.e. if Colter knows what they know then we have no movie. Everything would run smoothly, efficiently, and much more quickly. There’d be no suspense, no drama, and no tension. A smarter script would’ve provided a justifiable reason for not answering Colter’s questions, but this one doesn’t.
Indeed, the very fact that he’s surprised to find himself in this scenario is baffling. As a “perfect candidate” for the procedure, why was Colter never prepped and trained for its eventual implementation? There’s no benefit to his disorientation or natural suspicions; they only cause delays. But hey, at least we have a suspense thriller now, right?
Along with the script’s holes of logic, the other head-scratcher is Colter’s reluctance to engage future missions for the new program. He wants a guarantee that once this one’s over, that it’ll be his last. He wants out (and the film portrays this as noble), even though he could literally save countless lives in the future if he remained. He’s offered any soldier’s dream, yet his desire is antithetical to the American soldier’s character. What ever happened to “I regret I have but one life to give for my country”?
Structurally, Source Code bears a strong resemblance to director Duncan Jones’ first film Moon from a couple of years ago; a hero stuck in a confined space, he’s subject to a governmental experiment, trapped in a cycle he can’t escape, looking for honest human contact (just to name a few). Yet Moon was far more successful in its minimalism, both as a character study as well as a thought-provoking treatise on human value. Here, unfortunately, conceptual and stylistic ambitions overwhelm thematic ones.
For all its dark implications, the film really pulls its punches in the final stretch as it tries to tie things up too nicely and neatly—especially the relationships. It leads to a bunch of schmaltz while reducing themes to one-line hypotheticals (“What would you do if you only had one minute to live?!”) and cheesy Hallmarkisms while leaving room for sequels. For a movie that considers itself thought-provoking, it has no business ending with the final line, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: None.
- Language/Profanity: Two uses of “g-d-d--n”, an s-word, and occasional milder profanities.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Embracing, kissing. A crude sexual joke.
- Violence: Intense action involving explosions, and tension building to each explosion. Initially the effects are only implied or heard off-camera, but as the film progresses there are images of charred bodily remains, bodies beginning to be consumed by explosions. An exposed brain, a severed body. Not bloody, but could be scary for children.