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 – Up in the Air (2009)

10 January 2010

Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) and Ryan Bingham (George Clooney)

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) adores the world of airports, chain hotels and loyalty cards. His life as a motivational speaker and downsizing man-for-hire keeps him travelling around America enjoying his status as a privileged business flier. Charming, slick and truly happy with his unencumbered lifestyle, which is free of physical and emotional baggage, Bingham revels in his life “on the road”. Preferring to work on his frequent flier miles collection rather than engaging with people Bingham is less than impressed when his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) lumps him with young up-and-comer efficiency expert Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick from the Twilight films). If Tyler Durden in Fight Club represented a primal force that at the end of the 1990s wanted to break free of the commodity culture, Bingham represents the tamed desire, which ten years later, wants to embrace the superficial security and comforts of that culture.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga)

Up in the Air is the third feature by writer/director Jason Reitman and it has a lot more in common with his 2005 corporate comedy Thank You for Smoking, which Reitman also wrote, than it does with his 2007 teen pregnancy comedy Juno. As with Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air features a charismatic anti-hero lead character who in any other film would be the bad guy. Reitman and Clooney do an extremely good job at endearing Bingham to the audience and making us understand why he loves his life so much. We should feel either pity or contempt at his shallow existence but in fact we instead start to become seduced by it especially when he hooks up with Alex Goran (played marvellously by Vera Farmiga from Orphan and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) who is his female counterpart. For the most part Up in the Air is a breezy comedy that will appeal to anybody who has ever had to do extensive travel for work or attend corporate conferences.

Unfortunately Up in the Air does lose its bite in the third act and ends up lacking the wicked edge of Thank You for Smoking. Reitman drives the film towards a disappointingly conventional epiphany and then comeuppance sequence of events that detracts from the film as a whole. Up in the Air still resolves smartly and genuinely with a satisfyingly bittersweet conclusion but goes for a safe middle ground. Reitman’s film is far from being a masterpiece but he has succeeded in making Up in the Air very much a film of its time.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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