Saturday, April 9, 2011

Strangers on a Train: SOURCE CODE

Duncan Jones’s directorial debut, 2009’s Moon, was a sci-fi study in loneliness and isolation anchored by a wonderful performance by Sam Rockwell as the one-man crew of a lunar mining platform coming to the end of his three-year shift. He slowly finds cracks in the corporate messages and, though he’s more than ready to go home, discovers that it might not be so simple. I didn’t see the film during its small release and didn’t catch up with it until it had been on Blu-ray for a few weeks. But when I had caught up, I found myself wishing I could have seen it on the big screen. It’s a strong effort, a quiet, grey film with which Jones manages to evoke an epic sense of endless emptiness on a relatively small budget.

Now here comes his sophomore effort, Source Code, another sci-fi effort focusing on a man stuck in a difficult job. Jake Gyllenhaal is that man, a soldier who wakes up on a Chicago-bound commuter train in the body of another man. The woman sitting across from him (Michelle Monaghan) seems to know him, or rather know that man that he sees when he spies his reflection. Before he can figure out what kind of displacement has befallen him, an explosion rips through the train.

But Gyllenhaal does not die. Instead, he wakes up in some kind of dark clammy capsule, receiving instructions from a mysterious military officer (Vera Farmiga) who has a suspicious-looking scientist (Jeffrey Wright) looking over her shoulder. They tell him that he is wired into a program they call Source Code. It is explained that he has become part of a baffling experiment that enables a person to relive the last eight minutes of a person’s life (making use of the brain’s post-mortem afterglow and some parabolic calculus, along with quantum mechanics, naturally).

It might not make a lot of sense but it enables the film to engage in narrative loops that send us spiraling back into the same time span with plenty of variation. The bomber must be found and identified since, Gyllenhaal is told, the explosion was only the first of a wave of attacks that have been threatened. The Source Code, however, is not time-travel. It merely creates an alternate space within reality for the participant to relive the past. What happened happened; there’s nothing that can be done to stop the explosion, to avert disaster. This is a prevention program, not a cure. This causes problems for Gyllenhaal, especially as he starts to fall for the woman on the train.

This is a swift, engaging film that’s a nice twisty puzzle that has a solid level of craftsmanship behind it, cleanly photographed, featuring some nice special effects and a using a likable score. I enjoyed its surface pleasures – it’s filled with pleasingly displayed technological gadgetry and, at times, a cool demeanor of confusion – but it’s hard to care too much about the situation. The ticking-clock is ill defined and the characters aboard the train were already dead (nothing can change that, we are often told) so every failure to stop the explosion was just like watching a friend fail a level on a videogame.

What imbue the situation with dramatic weight are the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Monaghan and the growing frustration he feels with the futility of his mission. There’s a sense of dismay to be found in the pattern of events that make up the action of this thriller. It’s brisk and energetic but also fundamentally sad. Jones, working from a script by Ben Ripley, may not have equaled his debut feature but he’s managed to make a film that works fairly well on its own terms.

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