Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Source Code" Fast and Honest Fun

"Source Code" is an effective, cleanly made action thriller.  The film is perfect for a rainy Saturday afternoon, or an evening with friends wishing for a concentrated dose of good old movie excitement. It's the kind of entertainment Hollywood does better than anyone else: a good mix of attractive screen actors playing their roles perfectly, a quick pace, an original concept with a script that handles the exposition efficiently, and strong direction (by Duncan Jones) with professional support by all craftsmen and crew. 

After a few days, the plot holes may fade into the mind's view, but "Source Code" is such a nice mix of adrenaline and heart that the good will lingers. 

It has been described as "Inception" meets "Groundhog Day".  That doesn't begin to tell how enjoyable this is.

(This review has been phrased to avoid spoilers...)

When you look at a bright image for a while, and then close your eyes suddenly, the image is fixed in your sight for a few seconds.  According to the premise of "Source Code", a similar phenomenon occurs in the brain after you die.  The final eight-minute swath of memory can be preserved, harnessed and planted into the brain of a living person.  All of this is explained by quantum physics, and string theory, and other all-purpose, catch-all concepts that describe the paranormal.  

Jake Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, whose brain activity is used for a mysterious military mission to prevent a terrorist bombing aboard a Chicago commuter train.  Michelle Monaghan is Christina, a passenger who knows Gyllenhaal's "host" character and is unaware of Colter's mission. 

The film proceeds in eight-minute increments, with each segment revealing more information.  As the audience learns more, the suspense increases.  After the first segment or two in which we are groping in the dark, we become accomplices in Coulter's mission, and the movie becomes great fun.  By the final twenty minutes we're breathlessly identifying the correct suspect and hoping his horrible deed can be halted. 

At mission control is Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), whose objective becomes complicated by her response to Coulter as a human being and not just a scientific object.  Farmiga is wonderful, modulating her reactions in an original and thoroughly convincing way. Her one word response to Colter's direct question about his condition, and her little catch afterward, is terrific.

Jeffrey Wright is a wee bit too sinister as the commander, Dr. Rutledge.  This caricature may not be entirely Wright's fault; is seems that his role was shortened in the editing room, so we get only the barest hint of his military service, and why he uses a cane. 

As an actor, Gyllenhaal possesses large, soulful eyes that I would describe as sympathetic.  He uses them to connect emotionally with his fellow actors, and the viewer. We can't help but root for him, and be moved by a nice subplot in which Coulter wants to make amends with his grieving father. 

Monaghan has a nice chemistry with him on the screen, as she begins to doubt her easy knowledge of this passenger with whom she wants to build a relationship.  I would say that both actors are doing their best work here; especially Gyllenhaal, who has developed a maturity and nice command of his presence in front of the camera.

Seeing this in a crowded theater in Arizona was a fun 90 minutes for this native Chicagoan; Chicago looks wonderful on-screen, and the recreated train sets were authentic-looking (even if the routes used in the film were stitched together for dramatic flow). 

During the explosions between each 8-minute segment, Chicagoans will recognize snippets of the Bean in Millenium Park, which is used to great effect at the film's conclusion.  (Click here for a previous original post about the Bean).  At one point, when an imminent terrorist attack requires mass evacuation of the city, the overhead shots of the crowded roads look like a typical rush hour on the Stevenson or Kennedy Expressways. 

I might have ended the film a little differently, in which Gyllenhaal's "host" character carries on, and Coulter is allowed his wish.  It would fade out some time right after the freeze-frame; this would seem to make more sense within the film's own tricky logic. 

But I can't begrudge an ending in which love prevails, and it is suggested that the hero will go on to another mission; nor can I be too critical of a film that manages to be exciting while stirring honest emotions,  and gently reminds us to ponder how we might live the final minute of our lives.

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