Monday, April 11, 2011

Smart Code

I'm sure it'll be viewed long into the future on all kinds of devices, but since it's only been in theaters two weekends you still have a great opportunity to see the new mindbender sci-fi movie, Source Code, in a movie theater. It's good to see there for a number of reasons.

For one, it's legit. A good "what if" science fiction concept, a few really controlled settings, and these big long shots of the train moving into the city of Chicago and, repeatedly from all different angles, blowing into smithereens. Lots to think about, and then "boom" again. Until he gets it right.

For another, it's the second feature from director Duncan Jones, who's Moon with Sam Rockwell was reportedly another excellent picture. That one had very little budget, this one is clearly at another level, and one imagines the next one could be very big. In the Christopher Nolan vein, Jones appears to be a cinematic Brit who makes some highly suspenseful sequences, has a good eye for shots, and still delivers an engaging story. Even though Source Code is one of those brain-twisters where someone will post the inconsistencies and impossibilities on IMDB, the logic is good enough that you stop worrying about it and go along with the character's emotional ride. Kudos to writer Ben Ripley.

The third reason to see it is Jake Gyllenhaal delivering his best (to my mind) leading man job to date, the first one where I felt he was completely snapped into the role and I was with him all the way. I've loved him in more character work, like Zodiac and, of course, his really brilliant work in Brokeback Mountain, but I like him as the sci-fi hero, a driven soldier in a hellish purgatory that he's forced to work out the way he's being told by Vera Farmiga over a television monitor.

It's a nightmare situation, leavened with the opportunity to repeat and, standing out in the thankless girl role, Michelle Monaghan. They do have a repartee reminiscent of 1940's screen dialogue rhythms, especially in the variations, sometimes subtle, in the repetitions.

Ultimately what gives Source Code resonance is the core value of the "do-over." It's a common wish for one to go back in time to change something, thwart a negative outcome. Fixation on this wish can lead to questions of free will. Is it better that we have some sort of destiny to blame -- or thank, thus absolving ourselves of responsibility, or is Free Will the only way out of the trap of predetermination via genetics, upbringing, God's will?

My favorite image in Source Code is of Gyllenhaal's head on the tracks, like a Perils of Pauline cliffhanger from movie theaters circa 1914, the ultimate expression of pre-destiny. History is just a train rolling relentlessly down the tracks on its fixed schedule (the overhead shots of the train approaching the city, passing other trains) and it'll run us over sooner or later. Universal human mortality -- you keep trying to stumble away, frantically try another blind path to a distant solution, rail at your fellow man, yet there you find yourself on the train again, and the only break in the inevitable forward motion is when -- bam! -- the lights go out for good.

Not with a whimper, but a bang.

Here's the trailer. It's not exactly spoilerish but does explain a lot of the basic premise, which maybe is a good thing. But be forewarned:

Looking forward to more exciting stories from director Jones.

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