Source Code

Duncan Jones's latest film, Source Code, is an interesting film that avoids any major sophomore slump, and demonstrates that Jones is a competent, story-driven director. His first major film, Moon, won me over with its story and characters, and while this latest foray has its flaws, they are merely superficial.

Source Code opens with a train, where a man, Captain Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), abruptly awakens and is faced with unfamiliar surroundings as a woman (he only learns later that her name is Christina Warren, played by Michelle Monaghan) says that she took his advice. His confusion mounts as he realizes that he’s in a different body altogether, before being blown apart by a bomb planted on the train. He abruptly wakes up again, this time in a small capsule, with a video of an Air Force captain, Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who tells him that he’s on a mission to find out where the bomber is, and to stop another bombing in Chicago. So begins a Groundhog’s Day-esque series of events where Stevens enters another man’s last 8 minutes (Sean Fentress, who died in the bombing earlier that day) and works to find the bomber and the bomb.

The science fiction element here comes with the Source Code, which uses quantum entanglement to access the last eight minutes of a person’s life (described as an afterglow, akin to a light bulb), and essentially places the subject into a parallel version sidestep of the world, where he’s able to uncover information about the world around him as he seeks out the bomber. The story, much like the idea of separate worlds and time-paths, splits off in its focus, and to Jones’ credit, he juggles the themes (I’d hesitate to say stories, because they’re all part of the story) fairly well together.

The execution isn’t perfect – there’s points where the film feels a little forced, such as when we’re shown Stevens coming and going from the worlds multiple times, but the overall effect works – there’s plenty of tension, and several twists as the story changes in the last act. Looking back, the story isn’t so much a terrorist hunt as it is a man struggling for his mission when all of the choices available to him have been limited. Stevens finds himself in an impossible situation, one where he has to struggle for context when he has none. As science fiction author William Gibson noted: “The people who complain about Source Code not getting quantum whatsit right probably thought Moon was about cloning”. The same thing holds true for the counterterrorism element to the story here: this isn’t a film about an action hero tracking down the back guy: it’s the story of how someone accomplishes his mission, and the stakes that that mission might hold. Execution issues aside, this is a film that is really as thoughtful as Moon was.

In a lot of ways, this film is one of the best examples of real world events seeping into the public consciousness and expression: 9-11 and subsequent war on terror has undoubtedly had an impact on popular culture, but this is the one of the few examples of where a subtle theme of retrocontinuity has come into play: what if we could go back and do things over again? Given that between the political scene and a general yearning for the rosy pastures of the past, this film feels like it works on just about every level.

Doubly so, there's some excellent points to be made about the lengths to which people will go in the event of a crisis: here, Stevens uncovers some rather nasty surprises about his existence in the Source Code, and there are some fairly unpleasant consequences and moral quandaries for all involved: the life of one man or the lives of millions? This is a oft-tread story in the genre, and Jones handles it incredibly well.

At the end of the day, the Source Code reminded me the most of a 2005 movie, The Jacket, which features some similar concepts: working to change the past by righting a couple of wrongs, and it joins a growing roster of films, such as last year’s Inception, or Jones’ prior film, Moon, that focus on characters and story, rather than spectacle and action, as the genre is wont to do. It’s smart, and thought provoking, and I’m happy to see that with the number of science fiction films coming out this year (while I’ve liked some of them, like Battle: Los Angeles), there’s some genuine effort for something that’s not just for visual appreciation. The marketing for Source Code had me worried that I wouldn’t enjoy this film as much as I did, and I’m happy to report that it well exceeded my expectations. I'm not sure that it's as good as Moon is, but it's certainly better than a lot of what hits theaters.

There’s a closing moment towards the end when Stevens gets everything right, and I hoped that the film would end right then, as time stops and the camera pans across a still image, where the film is genuinely beautiful; sublime. It’s a powerful moment, one that shows all the stakes, and what we really take for granted. It’s the almost perfect end to the film (before a short coda), and an excellent addition to Moon for what Jones has created. I’m very pleased with what we’ve seen from him, and I already can’t wait to see what he’s got up his sleeve next.

2010 Film Recap

After last year, with some excellent films like District 9, Moon (and less excellent, but still fun to watch, like Avatar), 2010 felt downright dull when it came to the genre films that came out in theaters. So far this year, I've only watched a couple, in and out of theaters, although there are a couple that are currently available to rent through a local Red Box, which I'll likely do over the next couple of days.

Of all of the films that I've seen thus far, Inception is by far the best, not only of the year, but it's going onto my 'Top genre films' list, which includes films like Moon, District 9, Solaris, Minority Report, and others along the same caliber that I’ve enjoyed. Inception worked on almost every level for me: it had a compelling, interesting and relevant plot, was excellently shot and directed, and has a fantastic soundtrack that I’ve listened to a lot. It’s a film that I’ve been eagerly anticipating seeing again after I saw it in theaters, and I was particularly happy to see a film that was not only smart and interesting, but that caught with a broad appeal and actually did quite well at the box office.

How to Train Your Dragon was a film that I saw recently that really surprised me. Megan and I rented it on a whim, and we both really enjoyed it. It’s a standard pre-teen action/adventure animated movie, with a focus on the fighting and happy ending, but it’s a fun little story of friendship and doing the right thing. And there’s dragons, some funny moments, quite a bit of action, and some excellent voice acting. Apparently, there’s a sequel coming in a couple of years, and I’ll certainly make it a point to see that one.

Along with How to Train Your Dragon, we rented Toy Story 3, which was a great capstone to the first two films, although given how long it’s been since I’ve seen the 2nd one, it’s hard to compare them in terms of quality. This new addition holds up wonderfully to the first film, something I consider a formative film in my own childhood, and treasure it deeply (along with the lessons learned there: treat your things well). #3 felt very dark at points without going overboard, but retained the charm of the first two films. Beyond that, it aged well, with Andy headed off to college, making this film a very different one in tone, and not just a rehash of the first two.

Daybreakers was another surprise, and while people seem fixated on the horrors of the sparkly Vampire novels and urban fantasy, this film makes its own departures and is able to retain some of the more horrific and over the top elements nicely. There’s an overt political and environmental message embedded in the story, but it fits well. The story of vampires running out of blood and mutating was a fun one, with some over the top elements, some neat science fictional ones, and Sam Neill being creepy.

Iron Man II was a letdown after the first Iron Man movie. Where the first was a fun, concise story that rolled together the military industrial complex and the wars in the Middle East, the sequel attempted to do the same thing, while also setting up the upcoming Avengers movie, juggle multiple villains and the Demon in a Bottle storyline. It’s a case where they should have picked one or two and focused on those, but despite the glaring problems, the film is a fun one, with action, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Hopefully, they’ll get the 3rd one right when that’s released in a couple of years, and I’m guessing that many of the problems are due to studio interference, rather than the people who actually filmed it.

Clash of the Titans was a bomb: a big, stupid fun bomb that was pure popcorn fare. Not worth picking up by any stretch of the imagination (I ended up winning a copy), but it’s worth watching for the overblown effects, crappy acting and monsters going around eating / killing / maiming people in various ways.

I couldn’t even get through The Book of Eli. A coworker of mine told me the ending afterwards, and I’m not missing anything after falling asleep while watching it. There were some interesting action sequences and a cool premise, but it just couldn’t hold my attention.

There were a bunch of films that I wanted to see, but simply haven’t had the chance or time to do so yet: Wolfman (despite the horrible reviews), Green Zone (Jason Bourne lite?), Social Network (Aaron Sorkin is one of my favorite writers), Kick Ass (Which looked like an incredible amount of fun), Splice (which was apparently a well acted, scripted and shot film), Predators (which looked like fun), The American (Artistic spy film?) and the recently released Black Swan, (which looks and sounds incredible). A couple of these, like Predators, Splice, Kickass, Green Zone and Wolfman are all available to rent, so I might end up going that route before buying any of them.

And, of course, there’s a couple of films out there that are about to be released: True Grit, a Coen Brothers western, which looks like it could be an interesting one, based off of the original John Wayne film, while I’m also interested in the last Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hollows, Part 1 (I’m rereading all of the books now). The last film of the year that I’m eagerly awaiting, Tron: Legacy, for some pseudo-Cyberpunk blockbuster action is out next week. I loved the original Tron when I saw it earlier this year, and it’s one that I’m already anticipating for the big screen.

After this year, there’s a couple of films that I’m looking forwards to for 2011: Battle: Los Angeles is going to be a certain theater visit for me, The Adjustment Bureau, based off of a Philip K. Dick story, as well as Sucker Punch, which looks like pure male fantasy (and every geeky trope lumped into one story). Source Code, Duncan Jones’ second film is also to be released (I loved Moon, so I’m hopeful for this one.) and the summer, with Thor (Maybe), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Strange Tides (Sure), X-Men: First Class (Yep), Super 8 (J.J. Abrams film), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Maybe?), Captain America (Maybe), Harry Potter 7.2 (depends on the first one), Cowboys and Aliens (Yes!), all looking like a bit of fun. The fall will also bring in the first Tintin movie, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, which I’m eagerly awaiting. There’s also a second Sherlock Holmes film in there somewhere, which might be fun.

2010 felt like a bit of a lax year – there were some other genre films that came out, but there really wasn’t anything that caught my eyes or attention beyond the films that I saw (or otherwise listed). Between ’9 and ’11, there are quite a few interesting things set to film, and if anything, it’s a reaffirmation that Science Fiction and Fantasy are both still pretty popular when it comes down to the wire. Except this year, for some reason.