Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Review: "Source Code"
Most science fiction thrillers get the "hardware" part of the movie right -- the technology, the fantastical shifting realities -- and skimp on the human stuff.
"Source Code" is the exact opposite: A flick that engages us with its protagonist and his plight, but the technical part of the story never really seems to add up. After the lights came on, I was left scratching my head trying to figure out the metaphysics and quantum mechanics of it all.
Still, I was caught up in the tale of Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier on a mission to stop a speeding train loaded with a bomb. In the end, the whys and wherefores became less important to the cinematic experience than the urgency of this time-traveler's duty.
Now, see, I already misspoke. Technically, Colter Stevens is not traveling through time. You'll have to bear with me here, since I can't reveal too much about this movie without compromising its secrets.
Colter wakes up on a commuter train, a sleek modern double-decker hurtling toward Chicago. There's a pretty, friendly girl named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) sitting across from him who acts like she knows him. He goes into the lavatory and sees another man's face staring at him. He's just starting to make sense of it all when a fiery explosion engulfs everything.
Colter wakes up in a dark, dank metal prison, like a Mercury astronaut capsule sunk to the bottom of the ocean. A woman's voice, reassuring but commanding, appears on a speaker asking him to recount what just happened.
Next thing he knows, Colter is back on the train, waking up back where he started. The scenario seems to be playing out exactly the same way it did before ... or is it?
Colter, a helicopter pilot on tour in Afghanistan, soon learns what's going on: He's a recruit in a top-secret new military experiment in "time reassignment." It seems the human brain has a sort of short-term memory track, about eight minutes long, that scientists can access even after death. They also have the ability to project one's consciousness into a similar person's mind and control their actions.
To wit: Colter is sent into the head of a mild-mannered school teacher who must find the bomber from among the hundreds of people aboard the train. Strangely, Goodwin, the officer guiding him in his missions (the capable Vera Farmiga) instructs him not to worry about defusing the bomb, but locating who set it.
Is this an alternate reality? A time loop? A "Matrix"-like facsimile meant to dissemble?
Furthermore, how can Colter keep repeating those eight minutes over and over again, doing something different every time, a la "Groundhog Day," without ever being able to stop the bomb from going off?
(One hint is the code name of the operation, Beleaguered Castle, a form of solitaire in which the player tries to build the cards into foundations, but most games end in failure after just a few moves.)
Director Duncan Jones (who made the wonderful and little-seen "Moon" a couple years back) and rookie screenwriter Ben Ripley ably keep the audience misdirected, making the mechanics of what's happening seem less important than the exigency of it.
So beyond the obvious concern of finding the terrorist, we're constantly asking questions: What exactly is the teacher's relationship with Christina? Why does Goodwin seem a little sad behind the sternness? What are Colter's handlers not telling him?
With "Source Code," the audience may not always understand what's going on, but we care about the outcome.
3 stars out of four