Saturday, April 09, 2011

Source Code

The trailers and promos for Duncan Jones's second film Source Code seemed to suggest a very familiar narrative.  Not for the film, that is, but for Jones's career.  First, an arty, idiosyncratic film to establish his credentials among critics and science fiction fans alike.  Then, a bankable, formulaic action flick with SFnal touches to prove to the Hollywood money people that Jones could be relied on to rein in his artistic impulses and put seats in the movie theater.  That Source Code has turned out to be an enjoyable, somewhat intelligent and competently made film while still hewing closely to the more conventional blockbuster format suggested by its marketing is gratifying, but not very surprising--it mainly means that Jones is closer to being another Christopher Nolan than another Richard Kelly.  What is surprising, however--especially given that Jones has only directed the film, while the script is credited to Ben Ripley--is just how many similarities there are between Source Code and Jones's debut Moon.  Both are focused on a single individual, a man engaged in grueling, repetitive labor whose hoped-for reward is described in terms so hazy that it comes to seem metaphysical.  In both films the protagonist discovers that he is not what he thinks he is, and that his nature enables his handlers to view him as expendable and unworthy of compassion.  Both men nevertheless manage to win over one of their handlers, and with their help they make their escape into a world that is uncertain but nevertheless offers them more freedom than their life before--but not before making sure that others of their kind are given the same opportunity.

In Source Code, the hero is Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal, demonstrating once again how a pair of soulful blue eyes can turn a conventionally handsome, perhaps even callow face surprisingly transparent and vulnerable), a helicopter pilot flying sorties in Afghanistan for the US Air Force, who suddenly finds himself on a passenger train, meeting an unfamiliar face in the mirror and being addressed as Sean by his fellow commuter Christina (Michelle Monaghan, bubbly and charming to just the right degree).  No sooner has he started to get his bearings than the train explodes, and Colter finds himself in what looks vaguely like a helicopter cockpit, being addressed through video transmissions.  Though he insists that he has no memory of how he got here from Afghanistan, Colter is informed by his handlers, Air Force officer Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and civilian scientist Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) that he is part of a top-secret anti-terrorism project called Source Code.  Using Rutledge's technology, he can relive the last eight minutes before the explosion again and again, using them to discover the identity of the bomber and prevent another bombing that Goodwin and Rutledge insist is imminent.

It's pretty easy to guess just what vital piece of information is being held back from Colter, and to the film's credit it doesn't wait very long before revealing that he is, essentially, a brain in a box, having been shot down and very nearly killed in Afghanistan several months before the film's events.  Colter is thus faced with several challenges on top of identifying the bomber (which he anyway takes a rather desultory approach towards, letting several iterations of the explosion go by before kicking his investigation into gear and discovering he perpetrator on his first serious attempt).  He has to convince Goodwin and Rutledge that he is a person and not a tool, and thus that he deserves respect and the chance for self-determination, which in his case means the right to die.  He has to deal with the trauma of experiencing death multiple times on the train, while coming to terms with the fact of his death in Afghanistan, even as he falls in love with Christina.  Finally, he has to fight for the chance to prevent the train explosion rather than simply identifying the bomber, insisting over Goodwin and Rutledge's objections that what he is experiencing isn't a mere simulation.

Despite the similarities between their situations, one crucial difference between Colter and Moon's Sam determines the shape and meaning of their stories--Colter is a soldier.  Moon's plot could be taken--and we were encouraged to take it so--as the story of an individual being exploited by a corporation for the sake of financial gain.  The original Sam Bell did his tour on the moon, collected his salary, and went on with his life, unaware that his clones continued to labor with no compensation, either to him or to themselves.  Colter's exploitation, however, is a less clear-cut evil.  Soldiers accept that the nation has the right to ask them to make incredible sacrifices, up to and including giving their lives.  The question that Source Code asks is whether it's right for the nation to ask its soldiers to make sacrifices even beyond that last full measure of devotion, and more generally, where the correct point of balance is between the needs of the state and the needs of the soldier.  As soon as he regains consciousness, and especially after he realizes that he is dead, Colter is preoccupied with making contact with his father, with whom he'd quarreled over his decision to return to Afghanistan for a third tour.  There's an obvious parallel to be drawn between Colter's willingness to return to the danger of a war zone--and his superiors' willingness to send him there--and the constant repetition of the train explosion.   Just as his father insisted on Colter's right to rest from battle, Colter insists on his right to rest in death, making Source Code the latest in a long line of works that equate the soldier's much-deserved rest after the tumult and peril of battle with the peaceful rest of death.

Which is why Source Code's greatest flaw is its choice to make Rutledge both a civilian and the film's villain.  Much more than the actual bomber, who doesn't end up posing much of a challenge to Colter, Rutledge is Colter's antagonist.  Unlike Goodwin, who warms to Colter and bonds with him over their shared service (when Rutledge refuses to confirm that Colter has died, Colter persuades Goodwin to do so by asking her "one soldier to another"), Rutledge has no concern for Colter's wishes and desires.  Despite promising to let Colter die at the end of the mission, he plans to erase his memory and keep him on life support, and refuses to let Colter go back one last time to prevent the train bombing, insisting that this would have no real-world effect.  The film could easily have made Rutledge an ambiguous figure--his motives, preventing a terrorist bombing and creating a powerful new tool in the war against terror, are after all honorable, even if his methods are questionable--and if he, like Goodwin, were an officer then he could have credibly represented the opposing viewpoint to her stance that there is a limit to what the state may demand of its soldiers.  Instead, the film delights in portraying Rutledge as callous and even cruel, not only unsympathetic to Colter's distress, but disrespectful of his bravery and sacrifice.  This disrespect, the film strongly implies, is rooted in the fact that Rutledge is a civilian--when he glibly tells Colter that many soldiers would jump at the chance to give more than one life for their country, Colter's response is that Rutledge must never have been in battle, because soldiers who have been would say that "one death is enough"--and the film plays up to many of the stereotypes that crop up when fiction confronts brave soldiers with craven civilians, making Rutledge a grotesque.  Rutledge walks with a crutch, and Wright makes of that disability something profoundly unattractive, wheezing and gasping for breath.  Rutledge thus presents an image of offputting sickness which the film can then contrast with Colter's attractive virility--a virility that is entirely illusory, since Colter is nothing but a torso on life support.  This, of course, plays up another war movie cliché, that of the maimed soldier who is still more of a man than the whole--or in this case, nearly whole--civilian.

If Source Code ends up disappointing as a war movie, it is much more successful, though not perfectly so, as a science fiction film.  I was particularly impressed with how the film thought through the implications of Colter's predicament, the slow revelation of the fact that the impassioned exchanges we see him have with Goodwin and Rutledge take place almost entirely in his head, while their conversation with him is mediated by impersonal technology (though I wish the film hadn't waited so long to reveal, for example, that Goodwin can't hear Colter's voice or see his face, because this goes a long way towards explaining why she and Rutledge can so easily fail to empathize with Colter, and why only she comes to see him as a person).  Even more important is the nature of the source code, which turns out, as Colter keeps insisting over Rutledge's dismissal, to be much more than a simulation.  The film appears to end when Colter, having gone back to the train one last time and prevented the bombing, arranges the last minutes of his life to be perfect, saying goodbye to his father and confessing his feelings to Christina.  As they kiss, the image freezes, and Colter appears to have gotten his desired rest.  But this turns out to be false bottom--the film restarts, and Colter realizes that he's created an alternate universe in which the train never exploded and he is free to live out the rest of his life (albeit in another man's body).  I've seen complaints that the "freeze frame" ending is the better one of the two, and though I agree that it would have been a good stopping point, it's the film's real ending that makes it truly SFnal.  The revelation of the source code's true nature elevates it from a quasi-magical McGuffin to something genuinely scary and momentous, and the film's final moments, in which the alternate universe's Goodwin receives a message from Colter and understands the true power of the source code, have the feeling of teetering on the edge of a brave and terrifying new world.  It must be said, however, that the film doesn't fully engage with the technology's implications; if Colter's final iteration created an alternate universe then so did all his previous, failed attempts, in each of which the Source Code project would have been activated, which would have created even more alternate universes, and so on and so on.

Source Code, then, is an underbaked war movie and a slightly wobbly science fiction film.  What's left is an entertaining and occasionally moving SFnal action flick that is smarter and more thought-through than it has any business being, and refreshingly uninterested in wowing us with explosions and special effects.  There's been a mini-glut of low-budget science fiction films from major studios recently (Skyline, Limitless, Battle: Los Angeles, The Adjustment Bureau), and though I don't yet know how Source Code stacks up (and am anyway only planning to see the last of the four) I think that trend is something to celebrate in itself.  A wider field means more chances for quality to accidentally make its way to the screens, and lower budgets put less pressure on filmmakers to stick slavishly to proven, and brain-dead, formulas.  For both science fiction films and Duncan Jones, then, Source Code is a promising sign of things to come.

12 comments:

Niall said...

Colter realizes that he's created an alternate universe

Interesting -- I didn't interpret the source code as creating an alternate universe, just as allowing Colter to jump into one. That is, yes, I think every iteration he visits is a separate but already extant universe. (Part of me thinks Ripley may have come up with the conceit just by thinking up another meaning for "Quantum Leap"...) And I think the film plays fair with this -- as you say, the changing details in each iteration of the source code, and the fact that he's able to interact with the world beyond Sean Fentress' experience of it make it clear right from the start that source code isn't the simulation it's being sold to us as.

Which in turn means that if there's an area where I might wish the film went slightly further, it's in the treatment of Sean Fentress. I mean, Colter basically steals his body -- OK, he has no mechanism for stopping himself inhabiting that body at the end of the film, and if he wasn't in it the body would be dead, but even so. There's an identity that's been erased there.

That aside, though, I agree with you: promising.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

In his message to Goodwin Colter says that they created the alternate universe. Doesn't mean he's right, of course, though the film does tend to validate his version of events. But I do like my interpretation better as it's got a bigger gosh wow factor.

Agreed about Sean, who really gets screwed. It would have been nice if instead of portraying the ending as Colter saving the day the film had acknowledged that he'd reduced the number of fatalities from several hundred to one. And then there's the question of how easy Colter is going to find it to slip into Sean's life - will it really be that easy to convince his friends and loved ones that nothing's changed?

ibmiller said...

Thanks for such an excellent review - I particularly like your analysis of Jeffrey Wright's character. Apart from the rather annoying "only black guy is evil" implications (though they did have a bit of dark humor at racial profiling early in the film), I did feel they overdid Wright's villany - to the point that I actually expected him to have setup the explosion to prove his technology (rather like Samuel Jackson's character in Unbreakable).

Oddly enough, I saw Adjustment Bureau before I saw this, and from the trailers I thought both sounded like the same film - mysterious conspiracy against comely white couple. Both share the same kind of racial problems, both are nicely made and well acted, and both are definitely SFnal in inflection. However, where Source Code engaged me with its world and characters, Adjustment Bureau really irritated me with the looseness of its conceptual framework and shallow self-righteousness of the characters. This disappointment with Adjustment may be part of why I enjoyed Source Code so thoroughly - because I was expecting another pretty but lazy exploration of interesting ideas, and instead got a slightly flawed but generally quite intelligent and admirable story.

George Pedrosa said...

Abigail, where can I find your review of China Miéville's The Scar, the one that you mentioned in the Iron Council Linkdump post, where you wrote that "Armada was broad and shallow where New Crobuzon was concentrated and multi-layered"?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

ibmiller:

Yes, I was torn between being outraged that the film's villain was the only black character and the fact that he was disabled. In the end, it was the way Wright uses Rutledge's disability to reflect his villainy that proved the most aggravating.

George:

There was no review - I hardly wrote any formal reviews before starting AtWQ. The reference in that post is probably to something I wrote in the Readerville forums, in which I was quite active in the first half of the last decade.

Surliminal said...

I thought the disabled villain was pantomime bizarre, almost at the level of Rocky Horror or a Bond villain - it seemed weirdly out of step with the rest of what was a decent restrained cerebral sf flick.

That in fact is what both Moon and Source Code most of all have in common and why I find the rapture both are receiving, especially the first, slightly scarey, even though I too like both - both are basically sf films from the literary 50s or cinematic 70s. Despite the surface PKD like quality of Source Code, in reality it's from a very non postmodern world, where the good are brave and the weak are craven. that is one reason I think why the fate of the real Sean never even occurred to me.

I'm actually less convinced than you though that the end is as happy as it looks, the creation of a whole alternate universe with happy ever after hero. If Source Code was indeed a simulation, who's to say this isn't just a bit more of the same - that last minute of existence expands to feel like a lifetime. Yes we see the phone call arrive in @our@ universe - which like the end of the Buffy episode where she's in the lunatic asylum is the bit that really disturbs - but on the other hand we have their strange desire to stay in one place near the statue at the end because there's nothing better to do. That sounds more like secular heaven to me than a whole new life.

Martin said...

As far as I'm concerned, the revelation of the source code's true nature elevates it from a quasi-magical McGuffin to an even bigger quasi-magical McGuffin.

Abigail says: "It must be said, however, that the film doesn't fully engage with the technology's implications." Niall says: "I might wish the film went slightly further, it's in the treatment of Sean Fentress." The film really doesn't get to grips with what the source code is and what its implications are, instead it relies on emotion and tone. Not only does this mean there is a massive hole in the centre of the film on the "hard" side but, for me, the "soft" side of things is not at all well-judged.

I think Surliminal's point about how retro both Moon and Source Code are is spot on, as is the suggestion that Jefferey Wright's performance is pantomime bizarre. If the two poles are Christopher Nolan and Richard Kelly then that bonkers and totally out of place performance tilts Jones further toward Kelly.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

the revelation of the source code's true nature elevates it from a quasi-magical McGuffin to an even bigger quasi-magical McGuffin

No, because a McGuffin drives the plot. The source code is a McGuffin when it's nothing more than the gobbledygook that enables Colter to travel in time. When its nature becomes the point of the film, it's elevated above a McGuffin. And though I would have liked that nature to have been more thoroughly explored (though not on the level of "hardness," which I can't believe you're really positing as a necessity) I think what the film does with it is unusual and satisfying in itself.

I think that to suggest that Wright's performance is a deliberate pantomime might be giving Jones too much credit. As I write here, Rutledge's character slots very neatly into the stereotype of the craven civilian who thwarts the brave soldier, and he and Jones may very well have believed that the character was on the naturalistic end of the scale.

I don't know enough about SF films from the 50s and 70s to say if either Moon or Source Code are truly retro, but if so I think that's a compliment to Jones. Isn't it widely accepted that SF film collapsed into a black hole of effects-laden shooters in the wake of Star Wars, from which it is only very slowly starting to escape?

Martin said...

No, because a McGuffin drives the plot. The source code is a McGuffin when it's nothing more than the gobbledygook that enables Colter to travel in time. When its nature becomes the point of the film, it's elevated above a McGuffin.

Ah, but we quite strongly disagree about what the point of the film is, don't we? I don't think the change in the nature of the source code affects the point of the film at all. The point of the film is people, the magic tech is immaterial.

Regarding "hardness", I don't think the implications of the source code have to be riguourously and robustly worked out (although it would be nice if they were). I do think the film needs to show some intellectual curiosity however. I'm using hard and soft here instead of brain and heart and I do think Source Code can be criticised for being a brainless film with a (too) big heart.

Isn't it widely accepted that SF film collapsed into a black hole of effects-laden shooters in the wake of Star Wars, from which it is only very slowly starting to escape?

Well, I think that is part of the point. Jones is getting lots of acclaim for not making effects-laden shooters but, whilst this is clearly a good thing, is that enough to warrant the acclaim? Do we really have to go backwards before we go forwards or should be expect serious directors of science fiction to take things to the next level?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think we do disagree about the point of the film, and while I would agree with you that the film is more focused on heart than on brain (which is hardly uncommon) I think that one of the emotions it reaches for is SFnal wonder, which to my mind is both unusual and worth lauding.

Do we really have to go backwards before we go forwards or should be expect serious directors of science fiction to take things to the next level?

How is the film going backwards, though? As I say in this post, it's no masterpiece, but I think that the things it does well as an improvement on most SF films.

stu willis said...

The ending was Duncan Jones' idea, not Ben Ripleys. THat should give us all hope for Duncan's future career. He knows that science-fiction can often be transcendent.

Anonymous said...

both Colter and Goodwin are in the AIRFORCE hence they are NOT soldiers. IRL, they would not refer to themselves as such. Just sayin.

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