Thursday, 7 April 2011

'Source Code' review:

It's increasingly commonplace for mainstream blockbuster films to (often superficially) involve themselves with ideas traditionally thought to be above the station of mere entertainment. The films of Christopher Nolan, including last summer's 'Inception', are a prominent example, as they seek to engage the audience in discussion of the subconscious - from dreams and memories to Freudian concepts like the id and the super-ego - without distracting from the motorcycle chases and cityscape-bending action that audiences crave.

'Source Code', the second feature from 'Moon' director Duncan Jones, is just such a film: a high-concept science-fiction thriller at the centre of which lie a number of metaphysical concerns. On its most basic level though, the title refers to a computer simulation that enables an American soldier, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, to relive the last eight minutes of a man's life over and over again in order to identify his murderer - a terrorist whose bombing of a Chicago-bound passenger train claimed hundreds of lives. In crass marketing speak, it's 'Groundhog Day' meets 'Under Siege 2' with a dash of 'Being John Malkovich' thrown in for good measure.

Yet if the premise promises to raise philosophical questions, Gyllenhaal's repeated trips into what is described by exposition as the "afterglow" of a deceased man's mind take a dispiritingly familiar route. He starts off disoriented in alien surroundings, before he learns the routines of the various characters around him on the train. This enables him to act incredibly cool in that one scene that is practically pre-written into every time travel concept, as he predicts a string of incidental details as if by precognition in order to impress the girl who has taken his fancy (Michelle Monaghan): a coffee spill prevented, a ringing phone anticipated, and so on. The self-satisfied smugness inherent in this feat feels out of place here when you consider it's taking place on a train full of those recently slain, though Gyllenhaal pulls it off with considerable charm and is generally likable even if he remains unconvincing as an action hero.

Eventually, a couple of plot twists later, he begins to set about the task at hand with more purpose, less internal conflict and less knowing humour, with his mission galvanised by the revelation that failure to track down the bomber will result in the deaths of millions in a second terrorist attack on Chicago. This is the action third of the film as Gyllenhaal jumps out of moving vehicles and runs around with a handgun. In the backdrop to all this, there is a romance, along with a number of revelations about his own "real-world" back-story - including a father-son reconciliation sub-plot.

The Academy Award nominated Vera Farmiga co-stars as an officer at a secretive US military installation, who briefs our hero on his mission and has soul-searching of her own to do as the film reaches its climax and those metaphysical concerns come to the fore. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wright makes for an unsettling (and slightly hammy) presence as the cynical, career-driven scientist behind it all.

In contrast to the tight, restrained simplicity of 'Moon', Jones sets about juggling multiple balls at once with 'Source Code' and he mostly succeeds at keeping up our interest in each of them without compromising the film's forward momentum (a pre-requisite of any film set on a train). As a thriller it's energetic, intriguing and reliably entertaining, though it lacks originality in both the way it utilises its uber-silly pseudoscientific premise and in terms of its direction. Jones keeps things very safe and functional, and it lacks a certain stylistic joie de vivre - a disappointment considering how complete 'Moon' felt as it riffed on its various seventies sci-fi influences. Moments of action also lack a visceral quality, with the exploding train never having the shocking impact it perhaps ought to.

As with 'Inception', it's hard to shake the feeling that the film is overly enamoured with its cleverness, which becomes a problem as the concept is undermined by a laboured last fifteen minutes and a twist you'll have seen coming - and which Jones would have done better to avoid. There is a point where you are practically screaming for Jones to cut to the credits. Yet the film limps on and what would have been eery hanging questions quickly become unsatisfactory answers, with an ending that betrays the preceding hour in terms of tone. As with the final shots of 'Moon', Jones is apparently reluctant to have anyone leave the cinema feeling too bummed out, and in the end the film screams compromise.

'Source Code' is a lot of fun and the concept is an interesting one. It is never dull, yet it lacks boldness in its execution and ends up as something fairly generic. With it Jones has shown that he is a competent director of a high-profile Hollywood studio film on a medium budget, and confirms that he knows what he's doing on a fundamental level with a well-paced and exciting film. The only disappointment is that 'Moon' suggested something more. 'Source Code', with its play on the increasingly trite question "what is real?" and its half-hearted ruminations on the existence of the soul, might suggest ideas above its station, but like many recent psychological blockbusters of this kind - it is ultimately content to paddle in the shallow end rather than risk alienating a mass audience.

'Source Code' is out now in the UK and has been rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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