Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Attack at the Source

This past weekend was a fairly good one for films. While it's true that the box office was dominated by the debut of the horrible-looking Easter animated film Hop, there were two more new releases to whet the appetite of moviegoers over the age of eight: the creepy horror film Insidious and the sci-fi thriller Source Code. Of the two, the Duncan Jones-helmed Source Code held the most interest, as it had a cast of considerable talent alongside the same directorial skills that brought us the fantastic science fiction drama Moon. This isn't to suggest I thought the fit would be perfect; Moon was Jones's debut, so there was every chance that the second film by David Bowie's kid would see his promise fall back down to Earth somewhat. Also there's the Gyllenhaal factor to consider; star Jake Gyllenhaal isn't necessarily known for picking the best films, not with clunkers like Prince of Persia, The Day After Tomorrow and Brothers on his resume. Still, the film's premise was unique enough to be truly intriguing, and if everything went right Source Code had the chance to be one of the more memorable films of 2011.

Unfortunately, the bomb happened to be on the 8:45 train, NOT the 9:15
Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, an Army helicopter pilot who suddenly finds himself on a train outside the city of Chicago. He's traveling with a woman he's never met named Christina (Michelle Monaghan), and soon after discovers that the face in a restroom mirror does not even belong to him, but someone else entirely. Soon after this revelation, a bomb explodes on the rail car, killing everyone aboard. Stevens then wakes back up in his own body, sealed into a man-made chamber with a video feed that puts him in communication with his superiors at a top-secret military program. Though he has no memory of volunteering for this mission, his liaison by the name of Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) briefs him that his vision on the train is from his entering a computer simulation known as the Source Code. In the program, the user assumes the identity of a particular person (in this case teacher Sean Fentress) in the last eight minutes of his life. In this way the program directors hope to discover who blew up the train, and to prevent future bombings with that information. And so Stevens must constantly go back, each trip bringing him closer to discovering the truth not only about his mission, but also about himself.

They won't be serving the Jabanero Voodoo Peppers in the snack car anymore
If you mixed Groundhog Day with a thriller like that of a James Bond flick, you pretty much have an idea as to how the story here works. Stevens is constantly thrown into the same situation and must change his approach every time to whittle away at the mystery before him. It's definitely an original concept, and that alone is worth the price of admission. But unfortunately it's not nearly executed so nicely as Jones has been capable of doing in the past. While the director does a fine job - and with a limited budget besides - there isn't a lot to love here. The constant traveling back to the same point gets tedious after a while, and no amount of variation can really make up for that. The story does have some humorous elements and one-liners, but more often than not they are overshadowed by the far more serious main tale. The film also lacks any real character development, at least for the secondary characters. Most, like Christina and the other passengers on the train, are learned in bare minimum, while the military characters who are not Stevens get little to work with. It doesn't help the viewer when we simply don't care who the actual terrorist is when we barely learned anything about them up to the point when we learned they were the evil mad-person.

Let's play a game of "Guess where I'm Staring?"
The film does have good acting to make up for the lack of development however, and Gyllenhaal rests atop that field as the best of the bunch. While Colter Stevens is given the benefit of actual character growth, Gyllenhaal makes it all worthwhile with his convincing portrayal of a somewhat amnesiac soldier willing to do anything for his country, but wishes he knew why. After impressing me with last year's Love and Other Drugs, Gyllenhaal makes another strong big for action hero status with this title. Unlike say, James Franco, Gyllenhaal is undeniably a different person in most of his roles and is not simply playing another variation on himself. Michelle Monaghan is surprisingly strong as Stevens's main love interest, though there's little for her to do besides react to the main character's apparent eccentricities. It was still a nice step up from what I thought was the weak link in Gone Baby Gone, and perhaps proving Monaghan has a real future in the business despite lacking what might be considered Hollywood brand beauty. Vera Farmiga might never get as good a role as good as Alex Goran in 2009's Up in the Air, but she still shows enough personality to make her military divorcee likable. It's a shame when an actress of her talent gets stuck in a do-nothing role, but sometimes the best you can do in that situation is to work it as best you can and hope good things come of it. The same might also be said for Jeffrey Wright, who is only slightly more interesting as he scientist who created the Source Code itself. Wright, who has to hobble on a cane for two hours a la Gregory House, has played much better characters in far better fare, but that said he comes out like the rest of the cast and does his job satisfactorily.

"This is your mission, should you choose to... oh, who am I kidding? You don't have a choice!"
By the end, we are left waiting for the narrative to finally peter out, as a great concept didn't quite have the staying power needed to remain interesting from beginning to end. As almost an added slight, the finale reeked of post-production test audience interference, and was far too overlong. Still, I can't help but like the things Source Code does right, even if those may seem few and far between. Well paced, well acted, and with strong effects and camera work despite a lesser budget, Source Code pulls in at #9 for 2011. It may not be Duncan Jones's best work, or anybody's for that matter. However, what really makes it count is the courage to take on an original concept and stick with it as long as it takes to finish.

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