Film review – Source Code (2011)

7 May 2011
Source Code: Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan)

Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan)

Free will, alternate realities, memory, identity, the struggle between the needs of the individual versus the needs of the whole and the implications of trying to change the past are some of the issues explored in this new science-fiction/thriller. It’s the second feature film by director Duncan Jones, who previously directed and wrote the excellent independent science-fiction film Moon. In Source Code Jones is working off somebody else’s script and with a bigger budget. While the end results are not as successful as Moon, it is still a decent mystery with intriguing philosophical implications and a fleshed out human drama.

Source Code opens with a series of crosscutting aerial shots of a speeding commuter train and the city it is travelling towards. There is a terrorist plot theme to the film and involved in this plot is a character played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who sudden wakes up on the train with no idea of who he is or why he is there. Jones’s focus on the small details of passenger interaction happening around Gyllenhaal’s character signposts the importance that repetition and re-enactment will play within the film.

Source Code: Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga)

Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga)

What emerges is a film that mixes elements of old fashioned mystery narratives with the concepts from Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day and Chris Marker’s La jetée, which was more directly the inspiration behind Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. While the blending of these concepts in Source Code is successful, the explanation behind them is less so. It should be enough for the audience to simply accept the principles under which a film like this functions, but the rationalisations offered by the characters within the film are distractingly unconvincing, making the implausibilities and paradoxes a little too blatant. The motivations behind the terrorist plot are also unsatisfying and under developed.

The smaller story within the film, focusing on Gyllenhaal’s character and the woman sitting opposite him on the train (played by Michelle Monaghan), works extremely well to give the film a strong emotional drive. While at times this may come across as overly sentimental it does contain a pleasing living-life-to-the-fullest message. Unfortunately, the bigger story that Source Code tells undermines this message, perhaps even inadvertently. While the film contains an excellent bitter/sweet ‘conclusion’ that would have made a terrific final scene, it continues beyond that scene to deliver what is theoretically a more conclusive finale. However, within this finale the very central premise of who Gyllenhaal’s character actually is seems to have been conveniently forgotten. It is not that the film deliberately ends on a dark and sombre note, it is just glossed over and this leaves behind a slightly bad taste.

Source Code: Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan)Source Code comes close to being a great film but it contains a few too many narrative flaws and slightly questionable issues of representation. While on the one hand it successfully strives to undermine reactionary and bigoted attitudes about terrorism, it also concedes to some very conservative attitudes towards the role of science and the military in society. Despite the life-saving work done by a science organisation within the film, dutiful individualism is celebrated while the collective good of scientific enquiry is somewhat demonised. It certainly doesn’t help that one of the main scientific characters is overacted and overwritten to the point of almost unintentional parody.

Like The Adjustment Bureau, Source Code is more successful as a romance than as a science fiction but it is ultimately frustrating.  There are too many disappointing elements that work against what is good about the film for it to be much more than an interesting curiosity by a clearly talented director on the rise.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Moon (2009)

10 October 2009


The best science fiction stories are grounded in actual scientific principles that are used to establish a futuristic scenario that then facilitates the exploration of deeper philosophical issues. The hard science in Moon is the idea that in the future humanity will mine the moon for its rich supply of Helium-3, in order to power the Earth with nuclear fusion. On board a moon based Helium-3 mining station is its sole occupant, mining company employee Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) with only his computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) for company. Sam is close to finishing his three-year contract with the company but the impact of the loneliness and isolation is starting to kick in. After a near fatal accident on the moon’s surface Sam is presented with an existential mystery that gives him very good reason to question his sanity.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell)

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell)

Feature film debut director Duncan Jones cites Alien, Blade Runner, Silent Running, Outland and 2001: A Space Odyssey as some of his influences. By using a combination of old-school model effects and soundstage sets with modern CGI, Jones has deliberately evoked the look of these films, especially Alien, where technology is bulky, slightly worn out and dirty. Sam’s dishevelled appearance and the film’s low budget aesthetic even resembles Dark Star to a degree while thematically Moon also strongly evokes Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. However, it really is 2001: A Space Odyssey that comes across as Jones’s main influence, especially in terms of overall production design and the computer character GERTY, which is an overt reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL. It is curious to note that 2001: A Space Odyssey is also the film that inspired Jones’s father David Bowie to musically explore similar ideas revolving around the alienation, emptiness and sadness of space.

Moon is an incredibly impressive film that assumes a degree of intelligence from its audience even if it is possibly a little too quick in revealing the explanation for what is going on. The lunar landscape looks incredible and Rockwell gives an amazing performance, sustaining the entire film as almost the only actor to appear on screen. Moon is a small film but it effectively and credibly captures the beauty, melancholy and eeriness of space while telling a surprisingly human story.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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