Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
April 2011

Time travel lite

For all its ambition, 'Source Code' holds back too much and too often

Source Code
Summit Entertainment
Director: Duncan Jones
Screenplay: Ben Ripley
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 33 minutes
Opened April 1, 2011
(out of four)

No doubt Source Code believes itself to be a heady sci-fi thriller. Its technological and philosophical concepts are tantalizing, it grounds those ideas with at least a vague sense of hard science, and by the end of the story it finds itself questioning the rules, principles and conclusions of its own subject matter.

Why, then, does it feel so much like just about any other pedestrian suspense thriller? Why do all the film's ideological conceits seem to vanish into thin air whenever things start to get interesting? The overall feeling we get is a film that is less than the sum of its parts. On its surface, Source Code has the elements and ambition of an interesting movie. But in actuality, we're left with a forgettable thriller that is almost alarmingly generic in its execution - especially considering the possibilities it offers up.

The film reeks of something that started out interesting but got watered down in the production process - either because the studio was wary of alienating audiences with provocative or even confusing material (gasp!) or because the filmmakers simply couldn't find the framework to make all their big ideas come to life. Or both. Whether that's actually what happened is pure speculation on my part, but the point is, the movie is far less than it could have been.

I say this with great admiration for director Duncan Jones, whose 2009 film Moon was an extremely impressive debut - and, in stark contrast to Source Code, daring in the way it treated its core concepts. This, I'm sad to say, is a disappointing follow-up. Absent is the intellectual curiosity that made the latter so captivating; in its place is an overt willingness to coddle a mainstream audience instead of challenging it.

The film is built around the premise that, for reasons I can't get into here (potential spoilers), the government has come up with a top-secret program called the "source code," which allows its subject to travel into another person's body for the last eight minutes of his or her life. The "subject" in this case is an army captain named Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal); he's being sent back in time into the body of "Sean Fentress," a passenger on a Chicago-bound train that was blown up in a terrorist plot. Colter's mission is to locate the bomb and find the culprit, no matter how many times he has to go back in time to do it.

The core issue of interest (for me, at least) is, let's say, a difference of opinion between Colter and the people running the source code program - namely Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the creator of the program. They insist that the "reality" he's being sent back to is basically just a shadow - that it doesn't matter whether or not he prevents the bomb from going off. That, they tell him, won't be "real." The purpose of his mission is solely to discover the perpetrator(s) so that the government can prevent the next attack.

Colter can't (or won't) accept this. To him, the 8-minute reality on the train could be just as real as the reality he's being sent from. Different dimensions, different timelines, different realities, different destinies. This is a crucial ideological disparity that could play out beautifully - if, that is, it were handled with the kind of substance that it requires. Instead, it's treated as the springboard for a half-baked romance and an even more half-baked (quarter-baked?) noble-hero-vs.-bureaucratic-authority scenario.

Instead of following its momentum down the rabbit hole, Source Code pulls up, holds back, and moves back to the Hollywood straight-and-narrow of action and romance. The time-travel element and all of its implications are revealed as little more than window dressing.

There are parallels to be made between this movie and last month's The Adjustment Bureau. That film was loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story, and Source Code is certainly reminiscent of some of PKD's work as well.

Neither film explored its possibilities as fully as it could have, but at least in the case of The Adjustment Bureau, there were things it did really well that could make up, in part, for its inability or unwillingness to follow through on its potential. Namely, the romance at the center of the film, which worked astoundingly well.

Similarly, Source Code is driven by a romantic angle between Colter/Sean Fentress and Fentress' co-worker, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). But in this case the romance is thoroughly unconvincing - and, even worse, uninteresting. Having a love interest not only seems arbitrary given the stakes involved (terrorism, time travel, government secrecy, etc.) but the film never makes the case that the romance has anything to do with what it's really trying to explore. It's just a shallow motivating factor given to a main character who already has more than enough motivation imbedded into the basic plot. Anything else is superfluous.

A movie like Source Code is one of the most frustrating experiences we can get - a film with all the potential to be far more interesting and intelligent than it is allowed (or allows itself) to be. We see a much better film aching to get out. That's the movie I want to see.

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