[1 April 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Serious science fiction has a hard enough time in the current pro-Star Wars cinematic domain. It doesn’t need Duncan Jones and his underwhelming Source Code coming in and mucking things up. Look, there is literally nothing wrong with this otherwise well made movie. It tells the compelling story of a scientific experiment which allows a wounded soldier (Jake Gyllenhaal) to go back in time - eight minutes in time to be exact - to play detective on a commuter train bound for Chicago. There’s a bomb in one of the compartments, and if Captain Colter Stevens can find it and dismantle it, many lives will be saved. In fact, if he can discover who planted the device in the first place, a second, more deadly explosion within the city itself can be prevented.
It’s all part of a major military experiment, one that needs to go off without a hitch. Of course, a woman named Christina (played with pluck by Michelle Monaghan) mucks things up. She is a friend of the ‘body’ Stevens in commandeering, and as attempt after attempt to discover the device fails, our hero falls hard for this lovely little lady. This makes his superiors a little suspicious. Dr. Rutledge (a quirky Jeffrey Wright) wants everything to go by the book. He is using this one case as a litmus test for his technology’s effectiveness. As for his assistant, Carol Goodwin, there is more of a conflict. She wants to succeed as well, but not at the expense of Stevens and who he is. Of course, there’s a twist (or two) up the sleeve of scriptwriter Ben Ripley, and under Jones capable direction, there’s of visual panache and flash as well.
So where does the disconnect lie? How can a solid story with a terrific cast and capable filmmaking fail to make a true lasting impression. That’s the Source Code dilemma, one few will face but that still exists on the outskirts of the otherwise interesting effort. Jones is trying to avoid that dreaded “sophomore slump” after the impressive Moon, and staying within the genre is a nice touch. It’s indicative of a desire to explore sci-fi, not just exploit it. Similarly, his actors are all up for the task, including a better than usual Gyllenhaal. There’s even some nifty F/X work which lets us into the inner workings of the science, including the moments when Stevens runs out of time and things revert back to the beginning. And yet there’s no compelling human point or motivation here, no bigger picture issue to think about and examine. Unlike most serious genre titles that wants to be some manner of sly social commentary, this is a small, individual story - and it always stays that way.
Apparently, it’s all a matter of expectations vs. realities. Fans who cut their speculative teeth on such classics as Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Silent Running will probably be looking for the significance. Others, especially those who’ve mastered the ways of the Jedi and think stupidity like Splice is the end all/be all of genre subversion will probably latch onto this like obsessives over a new Kubrick. Certainly there is a mainstream middle ground, a place where the general public can line up and have their minds’ blown and their techno-geeks tweaked without feeling too ashamed. But in an arena where even the slightest sci-fi trial is embraced because of the who and what behind it (see Will Smith’s I, Robot, for example), we expect more from Jones.
Granted, it was we media types who dubbed him something special after Moon, and Source Code doesn’t totally deny its talented maker. Still, this second time around you can start to see the influences (a little Terry Gilliam here, a smidge of Ridley Scott there) and the pat, pre-plotted nature of the narrative really does the filmmaker no favors. More importantly, there is no real revelation here. We get that Stevens is not necessarily going to come out of this experience “intact”, we are constantly reinforced re: the nature of this “reality”, and the last act leap of decency by one character seems clearly out of line with what we’ve seen before. Sure, we want some semblance of optimism here. But Source Code struggles to find meaning, so expecting hope is a tad much.
Still, this is a slick entertainment, a nicely crafted movie operating on generalities that even the most science challenged audience member will easily understand. In fact, this is more of a who and howdunit than a mind-bending work of future shock fiction. The ‘source code’ of the title is nothing more than a device, like the repetition in Groundhog Day. It allows the characters to get to know each other without having to give them multiple meet-cute situations to settle within. It’s a storyline shortcut, without any real lasting impact. Saving the day is also a shield, a quest not necessarily aimed at anything except giving the viewer something to anticipate. It makes Stevens presence important, his growing infatuation with Christina plausible, and the action heft and histrionics integral.
All that’s left is a big picture rationale, and this is where Source Code fails. By finding everything but a more universal purpose for all this right-minded rigmarole, we lose at least part of the movie’s motivation. Tie in all the familiarity we feel both narratively and character-wise and any classicism clearly drops out. Again, Source Code is good time. It’s polished and professional, lacking any of the grit we’ve come to expect from genre efforts outside the typical Hollywood film factory. But when fellow Brit Danny Boyle took on the saving of the solar system with his sensational Sunshine, he made sure to moderate both the panache and the point. The results were something truly epic to behold. In this case, Duncan Jones has done well. He hasn’t necessarily done right.