Originally Reviewed – 5/5/2011
Sometimes when a director moves from the indie space to the Hollywood arena, their message gets a bit muddled in transition. Ideas get churned up in the studio machine, producers make suggestions based on marketing material and actors make demands based on image, notoriety and celebrity. While I wouldn’t know from firsthand experience, I can imagine that it isn’t easy having a critical hit made on a modest budget just to have a studio turn around and hand you six times the money to make your follow up. This is exactly what happened to British director Duncan Jones. Made with a budget of about $5 million, Jones’ first film, Moon, was received with rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Leading man Sam Rockwell got some Oscar looks and Duncan’s debut made him a director on the rise. So when Jones got a tidy sum of 32 million dollars to made his second film he chose a twisty science fiction script about an army soldier who is tasked with replaying the final eight minutes of a horrific train accident over and over again in an attempt find the person responsible. The film became Source Code and while the result is a neat little story that features a fine performance by its star Jake Gyllenhaal, the film doesn’t quite reach the heights of Duncan’s previous effort due some unfortunate missteps in the script.
Throwing the viewer right into the fray from the first frame, at first not much is known about the army soldier played by Gyllenhall. Luckily for the audience, the combination of the character’s army persona and Gyllenhall’s natural likability help the audience quickly connect to our confused protagonist. Bewildered, lost and finding himself following orders from a far off officer well played by Vera Farmiga, the soldier now known at Private Colter Stevens find himself getting zapped over and over into the body of a recently deceased schoolteacher, a passenger on that doomed train. The goal? To find out who planted the bomb and, with this information, prevent another disaster from occurring. At first I thought reliving the same eight minutes over and over again would become tiresome but Jones does a great job in keeping each reiteration fresh, making smart decisions in when to change things up and when to cut to the chase.
While on this time bound merry-go-round, Stevens encounters an attractive young woman named Christina, played by Michelle Monaghan, who eventually becomes his love interest. While I understand the point of having a romantic lead, this is where the film starts to teeter on its own wheels. Again relying on the instant likability of the two stars, the film fails to give the burgeoning relationship any grounds for existing, other than to provide an anchor for the emotionally charged second half. Still, Jones obviously knows how to work with actors and directs both Gyllenhall and Monaghan well enough to give the audience something to latch onto. Sure, we have no idea why they fall for each other but they are likable enough for us to not really care.
Already on shaky but acceptable ground, the film really starts to hit the skids when it tries to explain its science. Once the initial shock of the soldier repeatedly reliving a disaster wears off, the film wisely starts to explain how all this time jumping is possible in the first place. While watching the film, I found myself nodding my head, saying, “Yeah, yeah, that makes sense…but no, it really doesn’t” and once that happened, I found myself thrown out of the action. It also doesn’t help that the explanations are rushed, confusing and slightly illogical, depending completely on the audience’s total suspension of disbelief. Compelling stars and good acting may be enough for us to believe the relationships but the leaps of faith asked of the audience concerning the science is too far a jump, even for a speedy action flick.
Still, through all this pseudo science and baseless romance, I found myself enjoying the film very much. As the second half ramps up the drama and the mystery of the bomber begins to unravel, I found myself caught up in the action. I even thought the relationship worked at a very basic level, a huge credit to Jones’ skill with directing actors. As it led up to the conclusion, I felt oddly entertained. Yes, the movie got lost in its own science but thanks to a few key scenes, including a wonderful moment when Gyllenhall calls his father, I felt the humanity of the piece in full force. And as the final shot filled the screen, completely telegraphed but still satisfying, I felt glad that this story somehow, someway worked in the end, despite the lack of character development and confusing techno-babble.
The ending came. And it went. Yet the film kept going.
As the reality of the situation dawned on me, a stifled “no” escaped my lips. The shot I had just witnessed was an end, an untidy, messy ending to be sure but a deeply human one just the same. So why was the film still going? And why are they doing that? And what is Farmiga talking about here? And Gyllenhall is going to do what??? Every minute of that ending drew more ire from me, getting me to the point where I could do nothing but mutter, “End already”, through my clenched teeth. In the short seven minutes between the supposed ending and the actual one, I went from satisfied acceptance to baffled, confounded and really pissed off.
In the end, Source Code contains 86 minutes of an enjoyable if illogical action thriller capped off with seven minutes of an ending so reproachfully tidy, there might as well been Care Bears and unicorns dancing about while the credits rolled. While exiting the theater, my first thought was that the ending had to be the brainchild of some studio executive sitting in a pristine office somewhere in Hollywood. Surrounded by market research, Excel charts and demographic data, this studio peon had to have conjured up the hamfisted conclusion to a movie that was shaping up to be a better than average science fiction flick. It was hard to imagine the director of the daringly disarming Moon could have thought this up and if he did, this mistake did the film and the audience a huge disservice. Regardless of who’s responsible, Source Code is still an entertaining film, even if it suffers from an illogical plot, stunted character development and a burning desire to appease everyone all at once. While I still think director Duncan Jones is an extraordinary talent who infuses his films with a very human flavor, I hope his next project allows the audience to wonder not in confusion of the plot or annoyance at the ending but at the uncanny way he allows his characters to live on the screen.
Score – 60%
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