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Source Code


I think we knew The Bean was magical.   To the unitiated, the reflective sculpture more formally known as Cloud Gate, designed by Anish Kapoor for Chicago's Millennium Park, figures prominently in Duncan Jones' Source Code.  The film begins with two converging aerial perspectives of the city.   One glides in from Lake Michigan over an empty harbor, the elegant buildings of downtown looking slightly blanched, echoing the vegetation of early spring.   The relatively new Chicago park gets further star treatment when Frank Gehry's pedestrian bridge is photographed flatteringly from above, looking a snaking, metallic riverbed.  Interspersed with these shots are those of a commuter train speeding into the city.  Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens on the train in a very agitated state, despite the presence of a lovely young woman (Michelle Monaghan) sitting before him who seems quite warmly disposed toward the jumpy man.  The last thing he remembers was piloting an army helicopter in Afghanistan.  Now he's on a train zooming toward Chicago in the body of a man he doesn't recognize.   Even worse, the train is about to explode.  The silver lining for Colter is that he's pretty much dead already.       

The explosion, an unconvincing bit of CGI, occurs as the commuter train passes a freight train near the campus of IIT on the south side of the city.  The barely passable special effects are at least partially explained away by the fact that we have seen only the simulation of an explosion.  After the blast, poor Colter (as if the name weren't curse enough) gets sucked through a wormhole, is witness to a kind of life before his eyes sort of montage, the aforementioned Bean among the images, and then back to reality.  Or a kind of reality. 

Like the Sam Bell character in Duncan Jones' first film, Moon, Colter is at first unaware of the very nature of his existence.  This is a fact that serves his employers well.  What he finds out is that that very capusule into which is strapped is just a mental projection.  What is real, when the video screen inside his imaginary capsule is working, is the soothing voice and blue eyes of Collen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga).   It's her job to keep sending Colter back to the commuter train so he can find evidence of another explosion which hasn't yet occured, a dirty bomb in an unknown vehicle bound for the center of the metropolis.  So, once more unto the breach in the space-time continuum dear friends.    

As one might expect, Colter grows aggrieved at this routine, being fired into a parallel universe and then exploded back to reality.  Who wouldn't, really.  He's able to determine the location of the bomb on the doomed commuter train, but like any good military man, he demands to know his location and the nature of his mission before subjected to yet more weird science in the name of national security.  The generally benevolent Captain Goodwin is only able to parcel out what bits of information her superiors think their subject needs to know.  Finally,the head of the Source Code project is called upon to give Colter a proper explanation of what's happening.       


This would be Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright).  The slightly mad doctor at first demurs because it might be too much for an average mortal to comprehend.  The basic notion is that every brain leaves a sort of electromagnetic afterglow for eight minutes.  Into those lingering minutes is shot the good captain, partially because he has a similar body type to his host.  Really?  Was zodiac sign not a consideration as well?  As Rutledge tries to explain the science behind the Source Code - "It's uh...  quantum mechanics, parabola calculus. It's uh...it's...it's very complicated." - we realize, uh... the less said, the better.  "Not time travel, but time reassingment," he finally states with a slightly sinister, voila! sort of breathiness of voice through a bushy goatee.  With his crutch and delusions of grandeur, Wright's Dr. Rutledge seems a small-time Richard III.  Now is the winter of our war on terror made glorious summer by this code of source.  Wright seems to be playing a type of heavy more than a particular character.  Neither Wright's Dr. Rutledge nor fuzzy science are the strong point here.  

Left to our imagination is how the last eight minute afterglow of the dearly departed host on the train are able to be utililzed a seemingly unlimited number of times by our brave pilot. There is also the matter of just how Colter is able to be fired back into parallel reality of the unexploded commuter train or what exactly (beyond being blown up) causes him to be yanked back through the worm hole.

Dubious though the scientific framework may be, some of the story's details do demonstrate some logic and imagination.  The capsule in which we first see Colter Stevens is actually not so far removed from the metal box in which his truncated body is maintained.   The implication would seem to be that he has subconsciously absorbed his physical surroundings into his mental projections, just as external stimulation sometimes seeps into our dreams.  

To its credit, Source Code also skewers 21st-century paranoia  about terrorist attacks more than it exploits the fear.  The repeated visits to the commuter train diminish the shock value of the event, much as Captain Stevens learns to regard each person in his rail sleek, spacious rail car (I'm not complaining, but MY Metra car never looks like that) as real people, not just figures in a simulation.  When Dr. Rutledge speaks of the "War on Terror," the term sounds as hollow and government-produced as it should.  There is also the instance of Colter all-too-quickly focusing on a man of seeming Middle Eastern descent as he's trying to determine the identity of the bomber.  Colter is wrong and another point about our reaction to crisis is made without being belabored.                  


Despite the infusion of a bigger budget - or perhaps because of it - Source Code is neither as fresh nor as good as Duncan Jones first feature, Moon.  What Mr. Jones has gotten right in both cases is the need personalize, to bring down to a human scale what are essentially outlandish stories.  We'll take the trip, however strange, if there is a character about whom we care in the midst of all the chaos acting  always consistent in a manner with whom he or she is.  It's a simple enough idea that too quickly gets lost when the plot goes swirling in one odd direction or another.   

Moon also had the advantage of Sam Rockwell - several Sam Rockwells as it turned out - at its center.   It's hard to imagine that film working nearly so well without his strange authority.   Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't bring anything quite so interesting to Captain Colter Stevens, but he does bring enough to make it work.   Poor guy -  he can't find peace in any dimension, as was the case in Donnie Darko.   He looks a bit like Donnie grown older, a little more ascetic with his sharp features accentuated all the more by closely cropped hair.   It's a face that registers both alarm and happiness with considerable amplitude, the large eyes and dark, ample eyebrows shaped like parentheses but acting like exclamation points.  The film's optimistic take on a future altered for the better by tinkering with the past and Gyllenhaal's sympathetic Captain Stevens more than make up for Source Code's shaky science fiction.              



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