Sunday, April 10, 2011

Source Code: A Post-9/11 Groundhog Day

Yes, I know it's a film critic cliché, but after seeing the Jake Gyllenhaal helmer Source Code I just can't help myself. The movie is clearly a cross between --

Groundhog Day and Speed
Groundhog Day and Die Hard
Groundhog Day and Body of War
Groundhog Day and Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day and Unstoppable
Groundhog Day and World Trade Center
Groundhog Day and 12 Monkeys

Ok, that's enough.

The film, which stars Gyllenhaal as Afghanistan vet Colter Stevens, has a simple (if convoluted) enough premise: Stevens is being sent repeatedly on a mission into the last eight minutes of memory of a train passenger who is riding on a train destined to blow up at the hand of a terrorist's bomb. Inside the memory (or "source code," if you will), Steven actually assumes the identity of the man whose body he inhabits and whose actions he controls, and can change the course of events through his own decisions and investigations.

This makes Stevens' actions in Source Code not so much an actual memory retrieval as a kind of scientifically / magically justified version of the Groundhog Day premise, in which a period of life can be relived over and over again with different actions, until one learns enough about everyone around to actually get the desired outcome right.

Groundhog Day is a much beloved Eighties cult classic premise, so this re-interpretation for our terrorized generation seems timely and about right. Unlike the comedic Groundhog Day - which focuses on self actualization in the face of loneliness - Source Code takes on more existential questions such as destiny and duty in the face of meaninglessness and death. Even if the science is nonsensical and the ending predictable, one has to commend it for at least attempting to be deep.

It's also a competent action thriller, with some deft dialogue to keep things moving. Stevens is guided in his missions by an aloof but clearly sympathetic captain Goodwin (played with engaging emotional tenor by Vera Farmiga) who speaks to Stevens in his "source code" chamber from a video monitor on the wall (hence the Twelve Monkeys comparison). The coded dialogue between these two helps keep the tension on edge. ("The qualifications for this mission are very narrow," Goodwin carefully replies when Stevens asks why he was chosen.)  Meanwhile, inside his eight minute loop, Stevens learns not only where the bomb is laid but where the hearts of the passengers are as well, and - like Bill Murray in the earlier version - uses that knowledge to enchant his world and empower himself.

Jeffery Wright - as Dr. Rutledge, the scientist conducting these weird experiments - seems to ultimately have something other than Stevens' best interests in mind, however. So it falls to Goodwin to help Colter on to his Good Win within the memory/time-travel that is / isn't the source code. That ending wraps things up a bit too neatly (and in one of those sci-fi mind benders that are impossible to sensibly unwind), giving the movie the feel of old B-movie sci-fi, the kind where a scary aliens, which is clearly a man in a costume, walks onto the set in the last thirty minutes to knock everything down. It's a bit of a shame since the thriller scenes leading up to that are not only quite competent and involving, they're also emotionally relevant, signaling cultural events as recent as the Giffords' shoooting in Tucson or the everyday inconveniences of urban mass transit. This isn't a movie gunning to entertain a specific demographic at the expense of another (a la Tony Scott or Jerry Bruckheimer), but one that seems to have a direct line into the average American of any stripe, and their anxieties about war, people, and everyday life. In his investigation into who might be the bomber, Colter starts by profiling an Arab American; clearly, we know he is on the wrong trail right away, even though the guy looks jittery. Yet his assumptions capture a sentiment that only the most insouciant (or dishonest) of us can say they never had, especially in those days right after 9/11. The film neither castigates not rewards Colter for his mistaken assumption, but simply lets him move on from there to dig deeper. Such is the cultural evenness which this thriller is charged with investigating, and which underlies its most interesting moments.

So I enjoyed this movie, despite it's heavy borrowing, it's repetitive premise, and it's scientific mumbo-jumbo. Brilliant, it is not, but neither is it entirely dumb. Maybe it's simply adrenalin candy for the urban class.

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