Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
Director: Duncan Jones
Runtime: 93 min.
Verdict: Since I can’t really think of anything, let us just say it is a good film and an interesting film.
Genre: Sci-fi, Action, Thriller
Dr. Rutledge (Mr. Wright), the brains behind Source Code, is crippled. Captain Colter Stevens (Mr. Gyllenhaal), the subject of Rutledge’s live experiment consisting of iterations and explosions, is stuck inside what seems like a crashed helicopter, which we later learn is sort of a manifestation of his real physical state, and which seems to land him in the same ballpark as Rutledge. Captain Colleen Goodwin, Rutledge’s apprentice, seems to be locked inside the little monitor in Colter’s chopper. They seem to be “confined” within the premises of their office, although there is bomber out there, and they’re just as helpless as their ancestors who’ve sat in front of giant screens and hoped for miracles in every major disaster movie you’ve seen over the past couple of decades, as opposed to their brethren in other movies, say Speed, or say Independence Day, where they themselves venture out in the open. The office itself seems to have no windows. Oh, and the experiment itself is called Beleaguered Castle, and I believe the players of the game would immediately acknowledge the space constraints as opposed to Spider Solitaire, or even good old Solitaire.
Let us talk about the chopper for a second. It is dark and seems to be burnt, yet its audio-visual stuff seems to be functioning somehow. We meet Colter and he is upside down in the frame, and it is one of those one-to-one mappings most movies seem to relish. More on that later. The only source of light is the monitor, a little window of sorts, and the only other reprieve from the dark interiors are some good old-fashioned LEDs. Shot-for-shot, with the close-ups on Colter, one might feel the chopper is only marginally better than being trapped inside a coffin, and at the same time wouldn’t be sure of the space around except for the familiarity (and it does calm our anxieties a little) with a standard chopper.
What Captain Colter Stevens (Mr. Gyllenhaal), or Dr. Rutledge (Mr. Wright), or the train, or the downtown Chicago expressways jam-packed with cars, or for that matter the film itself suggests is the love-hate relationship we share with motion in our life. Motion through time, motion through space. We yearn to belong to a place, emotionally and physically. To settle down, so to speak. Be part of a routine, and live under the illusion that we are in control of the pace of our lives, and do not have it dictated for us. We also want to get out of a traffic mess just as badly as we are prone to getting bored of our daily routine. Captain Stevens, during one of his iterations, literalizes this aspect of his predicament, which also happens to be the film’s core sci-fi gimmick, where he pulls down the lever for the door of the moving train and after the most momentary of thoughts jumps straight out. Mr. Jones has made a film that his protagonist is desperate to escape from for around 75 min of its running time. Yup, escape from the constraints of its primary space and time. I know, I might as well have been describing Moon.
Or, since I was constantly reminded of them through its generation of space, I might be describing one of those video-games where a choice in any direction would expand the game accordingly. Mr. Jones, via his opening shots, charts a sort of map of the space, with what turns out to be the only time the camera (and us) doesn’t operate through the filters of any perspective other than its own. All the threads, fulfilled and unfulfilled, shall remain within the confines of this space. What happens during the iterations is that Colter explores a different area of this space each time, causing cinematic time to extend and cinematic space to expand. We’re never again shown the rest of this space, and that is the sort of decision I might come across in a game like Max Payne II (
A crucial aspect that adds a whole lot more of emotional claustrophobia to the proceedings is the time frame of an iteration – 8 minutes – that is considerably shorter than the 24 hours Phil Connors had. Colter is running against time to identify the bomber before he blows someplace else, which causes Source Code to become a full length ticking-bomb feature with a tension-filled background score amplifying the lack of time. This contrasts starkly with the office, where Rutledge and Goodwin sit, and the urge around there feels considerably more subdued. Of course, this goes right into the film’s anti-establishment sentiments –the common man doing everything he can, while the establishment is taking cold calculated decisions – even more so in these times of revolution. It might be worthwhile to compare the mood around the office here against that of other such ticking-bomb/asteroid/disaster features where the whole bureaucracy is sitting before giant screens and is wearing their emotions on their sleeves.
I say subdued, but then in there, through those performances from Ms. Farmiga and Mr. Wright (who seems to be aiming for a caricature) one can easily feel a conflict within the establishment. Goodwin is more concerned with the bomber and Colter’s questions about the peripheral aspects of the mission cause her to be impatient. Rutledge on the other hand doesn’t seem all that bothered with the experiment, and his absence from the interactions indicates an academic interest in the outcome of the situation, and probably least regard for the human toll. The plot, in a neat touch, underlines this dynamic via the opposing interests of Colter, who displays human interests and failings, and Rutledge, who speaks to him in terms of textbook concepts. Colter is no superhero, he is selfish enough to be more interested in getting his own questions answered (absolutely nothing to do with the mission), and Rutledge criticizes this “unpatriotic” behavior and claims there would be many other soldiers who would gladly put the nation before themselves” and would always choose this “opportunity to serve their country”.
I say cold and calculated. Source Code has a kitschy little image tagged at its end to declare its humanity (a total relaxation on the intensity and rush of the entire film with a camera not moving as purposefully), and a kitschy little message about everyone living happily with each other. Let us just say the film is not exactly enthusiastic of what it believes are the “selfish ways of an urban world”. And yet, its literalization of its protagonist’s predicament reducing it to a one-to-one mapping – from the condemned remains of the chopper to the audio-visual interaction with Goodwin – and the explanations of the mechanism of the whole experiment suggests a mathematical deduction of the process of consciousness. Our estimation of ourselves and how we might perceive a little failure in brain activity resembles that of a robot (remember T2 and his alternate power), or a computer (reboot with audio and video drivers), and for Source Code the human brain is a processor, complete with such words as “charged” “circuitry “ and comparisons to CCTV. It would be safe to claim that in Rutledge’s office there is not much room for the intangible, and sometimes I guess that is what makes for a sci-fi.
Note: David Bordwell, as usual, as a wonderful post on the narrative technique here.