Saturday, April 9, 2011

Source Code

When a movie is neither bad nor good, it can be hard to summon a thoughtful reaction.

There's nothing about Source Code to inspire love or hate, praise or vitriol.

It's science fiction, but not really. It's a thriller, but not really. It handles complex themes, but not really.

The movie follows Jake Gyllenhaal's train passenger, who wakes from a nap with total amnesia. He doesn't know where he is or why. Eight minutes later the train explodes. He dies.

Except he doesn't. He finds himself in a metal capsule, where he communicates by video connection with Vera Farmiga's army officer, who is very sparing with information -- our boy Jake still doesn't know what the hell is going on -- but very forthcoming with urgent instructions.

Farmiga tells Jake he's going to be put back on the train, and eight minutes later it will explode again. But this time he has to do everything he can to learn why it explodes. Where's the bomb?

And more importantly, who's the bomber?

This is the science fiction-y aspect of the movie. A new technology's been invented that allows law enforcement/the military to go back in time -- sort of; it may be an alternate reality; the movie throws some meaningless mumbo jumbo at this question -- and live an eight-minute sequence over and over again. Nothing done here affects outcomes in the real world. It's merely an information retrieval mission. If the identity of the mad bomber can be determined, he can be stopped from triggering bombs promised to go off later that day.

So it's science fiction, but the whole thing takes place on a commuter train outside Chicago.


Jake keeps going back to the train, interrogating passengers, getting to know a pretty girl sitting next to him, and getting blown up again and again.

So it's a thriller, but there are no stakes we care about as an audience. Jake can't die, and he can't stop the deaths of anyone we meet. He can only stop other bombings that will victimize nameless characters in an undefined future.

Now, it turns out Jake's superiors -- Farmiga and a really hammy Jeffrey Wright -- don't have the purest motives. They're using Jake to save lives, true, but to them Jake himself is just another tool. His "real" self is a ruined human body mostly destroyed in action in Afghanistan but preserved in a cryo-tube down the hall. Once this mission is over, Jake's memory will be wiped clean and he'll be sent into the source code multiverse again and again to track down an endless number of culprits.

Damn those Washington bureaucrats.

Source Code has such a limp premise, executed with marginal competence and filmed with grinding mediocrity, that I really don't know what to say about it.


The writer of a superb screenwriting blog called Scriptshadow absolutely adored this screenplay. He gave it a rave review, and once the movie came out, he wrote a "script to screen" review comparing the differences between the two.

Carson Reeves thought the movie wasn't as good as the script (I thought they were equally bland,) but he made an outstanding observation worth considering.

He pointed out that the weakest elements of the movie were the alterations to the original ending. He didn't disparage these changes for the mere fact that they deviated from a script he liked. Instead he said:

"Whenever you rewrite a script, you’re adding new elements to each draft. Remember though, that while you may be on the 7th or 8th draft of your script, that new element you just added? It’s only on its 1st draft. If you don’t rewrite the script a few more times to get that element into its 4th or 5th draft, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb."

In a good story, individual events are not interchangeable. They're coded, so to speak, into every other event of the story. So you can't just change endings, or openings, or the gender of the main character -- hello Salt -- and expect the changes, however well-intended and, quite possibly, however correct -- to benefit the story.

It's a great point, and it's no surprise it comes from someone who, at least at some point, felt passionate about this story.


How Accomplished: 47/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 48/100