Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Duncan Jones, part II: Stranger on a train


As it's hardly worth reviewing a twist-heavy film that's almost seven years old now without going into the twists and how well they play, I'm not going to hesitate to spoil Source Code, at least in its broader strokes.  And yet if you've somehow not seen it (and, while it was a modest hit, I suppose that's not even that unlikely), or, better yet, if you've never even heard of it, take this advice: don't read another word about it, and just watch it.  Whatever problems its third act embodies, and whatever cautious, pointless discussions of its strengths we might've had otherwise, Source Code remains a trippy, mindfucky blast, deserving of a much higher profile than it seems to have.  And that's as good a short review as any.

Directed by Duncan Jones
Written by Ben Ripley
With Jake Gyllenhaal (Capt. Coulter Stevens), Michelle Monaghan (Christina Warren), Vera Farmiga (Capt. Colleen Goodwin), and Jeffrey Wright (Dr. Rutledge)

Spoiler alert: high

When star Jake Gyllenhaal pushed for Duncan Jones to direct Source Code, Jones' follow-up to Moon, it seemed like a trade up for the barely-tested filmmaker in virtually every respect, from the money alone—a $32 million budget, more than six times what Moon cost, which (amongst other things) allowed Jones to hire more than one actor—to the team of Hollywood veterans Jones suddenly found himself commanding—including Robert Zemeckis' cinematographer Don Burgess, Brian De Palma's editor Paul Hirsch, and (even if we're falling down a tier now) Roland Emmerich's sometimes-production designer Barry Chusid.  (Hey, surely anybody who designed Serenity has to be taken seriously, and Chusid does as fine a job here as anybody else.)  Ironically, the only major aspect of the film not overseen by a proven A-lister, or at least a heavyweight B-lister, was the part of Moon that had been: don't get me wrong, Chris Bacon's score for Source Code is a wholly competent thing—albeit one that makes you wonder what the unavailable Clint Mansell could have done for the movie's mood instead.  (It really is hard to say; when I think "Mansell" I certainly don't think "rollicking," though Moon's third act is just about as rollicking as it could possibly be.)

Either way, it obviously didn't hurt that, even if Source Code was work-for-hire resume-building in the strictest sense of the term, it came with a screenplay that Jones found exciting.  This was a reasonably-intelligent time-travel potboiler by Ben Ripley that, by happy accident, gave Jones the opportunity to look like way more of an auteur than he had any right to be present himself as, coming almost tailor-made for a director enthusiastic to once again work upon a variation on one of the major themes he'd brought to Moon's story just two years prior—literalizing through sci-fi shenanigans the way society cannibalizes its members for parts.

The sci-fi shenanigan itself, however, is the actual draw this time around, as Source Code revolves around a Groundhog Day-style time loop (or, if you prefer your references to be closer to the origin of a trope, and printed on paper, a "12:01 PM"- or Replay-style time loop); and Source Code's time loop must represent something very close to the shortest amount of time such a loop could be, while still functioning as the dramatic spine for any kind of parsable story.  In this case, the story's a thriller, operating with the inexorable logic of a video game, though it's a game our hero only belatedly realizes he's even playing; and it's a genuinely tragic pity that nobody on Earth has ever watched Source Code exactly as unaware of its premise as its protagonist is, as he suddenly begins his movie by regaining consciousness on a train outside Chicago without any idea where he is, why he's there, who the woman across from him is, or, when he catches a glimpse of the stranger in the mirror, who he is, either.  He fails to answer any these questions by the end of his first eight minutes, whereupon the train explodes.

Our man, Army pilot Capt. Coulter Stevens, wakes up again in a darkened pod, much the worse for wear, now finding himself yammered at from a screen occupied by Capt. Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge, evidently his operators on this mission (whatever it is), and both conspicuously unwilling to explain even the most basic details of how he got here, where and what "Beleaguered Castle" is, or even the parameters of his mission, beyond "find the man with the bomb," and he's barely able to ask how they could possibly expect him to do that before they send him right back to the beginning, where he finds his seatmate (her name, he'll eventually figure out, is Christina), right in the middle of the last conversation she'll ever have, with the man whose body he seems to occupy.

Explanations are doled out stingily, in the best way, and while they do finally come, by far the purest pleasure of Source Code is what it always is in this kind of movie: the simple act of watching Coulter navigate the last eight minutes of a dead man's life while he systematically uses his foreknowledge of events to master his reality (often with amusing, even outright comedic complications), so as to unravel the mystery of what happened on that train, and who did it.  (This is where Jones' collaborators come into their own: Burgess's camera and especially Hirsch's editing do an extraordinary job within the confined spaces Chusid's designed for them, finding a rhythm to Coulter's adventure that naturally tightens and tightens as it goes along, even without ever generating the kind of grab-you-by-the-collar centerpiece montage that tends to be the most memorable thing about movies in its little subgenre, such as would later serve as the most enjoyable part of Edge of Tomorrow, and, of course, effectively dominated the whole middle hour of Groundhog Day itself.)  Meanwhile, although Coulter's mission is set against an unyielding external ticking clock, limiting how completely indulgent he can be (the terrorist is still at large, and intends to detonate a second, radiological bomb in downtown Chicago next, and if this sounds like a writerly convenience, it's only because it is), he has mysteries of his own to solve.  Using his time in the past to investigate what happened to him, as well as what happened on the train, he has cause to become increasingly skeptical of his superiors' blithe description of their so-called "Source Code" as a mere "simulation" of what happened to his meat puppet in the eight minutes before he died.

It's a lot of elements to juggle, and, for the most part, Jones does it extremely well: the hunt for the bomber is fun and compelling and increasingly treated as totally secondary to the deeper questions of how the Kafkaesque monstrosity our hero's trapped in actually works—which, in the telling, seems completely right (it does wonders to lock you to Coulter's subjectivity and keep you as off-kilter as he is), although, on your nth rewatch, you do begin to slightly notice how incredibly little Coulter seems to care about the possibility of Chicago being irradiated, especially in opposition to how much he cares about saving the comparatively few people on the train that's been blown up dozens of times now.

But then, the train has Michelle Monaghan, and Chicago does not, which seems like a very good reason to be more concerned with the train.

Hence the worst thing about most of Source Code is simply that it's called "Source Code," a title that never stops seeming terrible even when you learn it's the ill-chosen codename of a super-science mental time machine/ghost simulator/multiverse generator; though nobody, not even a wunderkind like Jones seemed to be in 2011, could juggle all of this screenplay's elements forever, and even he starts dropping balls eventually.  The first noticeable wobble is the big wad of support-our-troops sentiment Source Code throws toward the relationship between Coulter and Goodwin, which hinges upon an evergreen (and typically-tedious) theme of brotherhood-in-arms, but isn't nearly developed enough within Goodwin's secondary (damn-near-tertiary) character for Ripley's script or for Jones' direction of it to totally pull it off—though, to her credit, Vera Farmiga tries hard enough, and subtly enough, to make Goodwin's third act face-turn work that you appreciate her effort on their behalf, and don't completely disbelieve in it at the time.  (Likewise, if you ever wanted to see Jeffrey Wright play a mad scientist, Source Code is your chance, and he's a fine sneering ball of campy energy and quietly-gleeful inhumanity.  It's hard to deny that he's at least slightly out of step with everything else in the film as a result—the only character who occupies anything like the same register is the bomber himself, who is, as noted, barely a character at all—yet it's harder still to argue that a more grounded performance of Dr. Rutledge's archetype would be even slightly better, let alone more entertaining, than the mildly-unhinged performance Wright actually gives.)

But that's the minorest of problems, and boils down, really, to such a plot-mechanical inevitability that it kind of doesn't matter how Ripley and Jones ultimately got there.  The other problem is much more untidy, and it comes down to the reasonable, but (in retrospect) dubious decision to tie up Source Code's thriller bow with a sci-fi romance, too.  This isn't to say it doesn't play: Gyllenhaal and especially Monaghan are charming presences, and if Source Code relies to an insane degree on the default cinematic assumption that an audience shall always believe that two very attractive people will find each other very attractive, regardless of circumstance, there's a reason this assumption has so much traction.  So it does play, even if it does mean that Gyllenhaal, with so many other dimensions to move Coulter along, winds up able to give only so much energy to this least-important one.  (Not that one blames Gyllenhaal: in addition to being the character in a Dickian nightmare and a romantic lead—the latter not necessarily being Gyllenhaal's strongest suit in the best of circumstances—Gyllenhaal is also required to be a quipping action hero far too much of the time for it to be a great benefit to his character, even if it makes Source Code's inner weirdness slightly more approachable.  Monaghan, on the other hand, having almost nothing but her one job, bridges the gap and then some.)  Of course, even Gyllenhaal's physicality is kind of a sticking point: after all, the man Monaghan's talking to only looks like Gyllenhaal to us.  Briefly seen in a mirror, the actual "Sean Fentress" looks like what he is—that is, a French-Canadian extra (Source Code being a partly-French production partly-shot in Montreal), who may be an extraordinarily charismatic individual in real life, and who is, unavoidably, given no chance whatsoever to be so in this film.

The best minor casting in this movie, one has to say, is Scott "Quantum Leap" Bakula as the voice of the conductor.  Now that's just plain cute.

In any event, it's not an issue until the film's final denouement, which essentially reclassifies Christina's function—from the avatar of innocent victims on the train, who just so happens to have extremely pretty eyes, to an actual human woman with a life beyond Coulter's allotted eight minutes—and which doubles way down on those romantic elements, in a way that makes it very clear that neither Ripley nor Jones were really thinking through their story's ramifications.  Source Code truly rambles in its ending, tying up its loose ends with grim thoroughness and giving up its momentum entirely in the process (though, before I sound too negative, not to an altogether unlikable effect), but before those longeurs completely set in, Source Code has a certain shot, a frozen three-dimensional tableaux, effected with a great deal of computer wizardry, that would have made for an immaculately perfect closing image, if that's what it were.

It is markedly better than the one it actually gets, anyway; it would, at least, have gotten the film out of the worst of its troubles, in part by letting the sci-fi metaphysics of the story rest more easily in a realm of ambiguity.  Instead, it lingers on (and, cloyingly, resolves the living shit out of our ambiguity); and so you get the opportunity to really consider the morality of the situation Coulter's found himself in.  This amounts to killing Sean Fentress and snatching his body, and (fair being fair) you can scarcely blame our hero for that, since Sean was dead anyway, even if it does come off modestly ghoulish.  But then, because the other big cheat Ripley used to grease the wheels of Coulter and Christina's relationship was a pre-existing attraction to the actual Sean Fentress (and I don't think there's a bigger, lazier mistake in the whole film), we are confronted with the distinct probability that a rape-by-fraud is happening right behind the black screen while the credits roll.  All told, it makes you wonder how much cleaner Source Code could have been.  Goodness, there's no completely compelling reason why our hero could not have been just Fentress himself, and there's enough inherent drama in that situation to suspect that a Source Code without the distraction of its Evil Government-Good Military Subplot (and, almost necessarily, armed with a greater focus on the kind of genuine sci-fi character study at which Jones proved himself adept back on Moon) isn't a more perfect version of itself.  I know that rewriting a screenplay (let alone from the ground up) is not at all a favored form of criticism; but sometimes it seems like it ought to be.

It's a tremendously successful movie even with the screenplay it has, anyway (and by far the lion's share of that screenplay, just to repeat myself, is genuinely efficient and clever and good).  Jones, jobbing though he might have been, turned in a most worthy sophomore effort—and, in a context like his, where his first film was already one of the best of the millennium so far, that's still saying something complimentary, even if you do correctly read those words, "most worthy," to also mean "somewhat slightly disappointing."

Score:  8/10


  1. I'm thinking you should stop the marathon here, but I'm glad you like Source Code too! It's one of my favorite modern sci-fi movies, even with that dubious ending.

    Interestingly, that rape-by-fraud element is introduced at a much more sanitized level in the new teen romance Every Day. Could this be the new trend of high concept romance? We need enthusiastic consent, and we also need to make sure you're actually the one inhabiting your body at the time.

    1. I've never actually seen Warcraft, so who knows how it'll shake out.

      From what I know of Every Day, which I'll be catching at some point, I don't even know how it's avoidable, given that one of the characters is a body-snatching energy being or something (do I have that right?). I would hope it's at least acknowledged. The Host (widely reviled for about a minute back in 2013) has a similar set-up, though there's no fraud, just aliens using meat puppets and getting pretty gross.