Posted by:
Lawrence Napoli

Movie Review: Source Code (2011)


Beyond Binary, But All Too Familiar

A Film Review of Source Code

By: Lawrence Napoli


Films that attempt to explore theories concerning physical reality as human beings perceive it must be well written and equally well thought out to make such grandiose thoughts translate to a person of average intelligence and attention span.  These kinds of films take risks because the global market suggests that visual mind rot is what people will shell out more dollars for.  I think this overall impression is flawed because the market is flooded with mind rot.  If Hollywood were to re-enter its Golden Age and rededicate itself to quality over quantity, I believe box office attendance would not fluctuate much and we’d all be left with a better product to buy into.  But the artists don’t run Hollywood, CEO’s and accountants do and as such, you get their best attempts to deliver what they feel is “entertaining” to the teeming masses.  Since this process seldom generates originality; begging, borrowing and outright stealing is the order of the day to produce “new” content.  Source Code represents a valiant attempt by the corporate machine to capture an audience’s imagination through the regurgitation of various ideas presented in Star Trek, The Matrix, and Tron.  This, in and of itself, is not a terribly bad thing, but too much familiarity is suspicious and does not breed consumer confidence, especially if word of mouth is relied upon to take box office numbers to the next level.  I will give novices Ben Ripley (writer) and Duncan Jones (director) credit for not producing another shameless reboot and for working with a higher minded premise than “the hero blows up the bad guys.”  I simply wish more had been done to separate this film from its obvious inspiration.

Anyone who is turned on by Multiverse, Cyclic, or String Theory (or simply knows what they are) will be intrigued by the plot of Source Code.  If all of the above doesn’t happen to be on your particular palate of general knowledge and you’re just looking for some action/sci-fi satisfaction, the script spoon-feeds all the details in baby steps in perhaps the most fool-proof way: playing the same scene over and over again.  It is through the abrupt introduction and multiple executions of “finding a bomb on a train,” where the audience learns about the relevant characters and how the story involves much more than simply finding a bomb on a train.  Front loading this type of film with all manner of convoluted exposition would risk losing an audience at the outset.  Thankfully, the dialogue is written in a very comfortable vernacular where the viewer has no problem understanding the basics of the story, what the characters want and the layers of “realities” that are presented as the story progresses.  The real weakness of this screenplay is revealed when the “science” behind Source Code is explained and the onus of filling in the plot gaps is left to the viewer.  I understand the need to keep this kind of story as simple as possible, but if the filmmakers wanted to create a basic mystery, garnishing one’s production with theoretical physics and quantum mechanics makes about as much sense as gold plating dog droppings (although I imagine Krypto’s load to be epic).  It seems as if a lot needs to be accepted by blind faith alone whereas even the most token and absurd of explanations would have sufficed.  In the end, this script is fairly thought provoking, but rest assured, these are thoughts that you have had before which leaves a very specific aftertaste of this film being a “light” version of a few different films you’ve seen before.

With a budget of around $32 million dollars, this was produced at a lower than normal price point for a sci-fi/action/thriller starring A-List talent that is moderately heavy on special effects.  Unfortunately, Source Code has grossed just over $37 million (over 2 weeks) which means the meat of the profit will be provided via rental and retail of this film.  With a weak American economy it seems even lavish Hollywood spending has been curtailed to make more fiscal sense from a production standpoint.  It appears that the Jedi Masters of super production spending (like Joel Silver) are becoming passed over for maximum efficiency in making the end product look polished while being extremely thrifty in the process.  I hate to reference Skyline because it was just terrible, but that film is a perfect example of frugal spending yielding a big budget look.  We can all thank advances in computer technology in terms of both hardware and software for this added production value at bargain basement prices, but none of this equates to an increase in quality unless steps are taken to compensate.  Jake Gyllenhaal as the lone A-Lister is in every scene, has the most lines and as a result, works the hardest of all the cast.  A-Listers should work their butts off for the dollars they “earn.”  Locations for Source Code are few and common in nature, but the spontaneous action and interesting dialogue masks this limitation.  Toss in some more than adequate CG work by Modus FX and Oblique FX and you have a sharp looking feature for well under $50 million bucks.  Executive producers Jeb Brody, Fabrice Gianfermi and Hawk Koch did a fine job bringing all these elements together for the estimated price tag.

The performances in this picture equate to nothing more than standard issue for average sci-fi thrillers.  Jake Gyllenhaal is the protagonist and he once again proves that he can headline a production reliably and draw a fairly decent fan base to anything he’s associated with.  That being said, he’s still simply banking on all the hard work he puts in at the gym and any emotional synergy he strives for with love interest Michelle Monaghan doesn’t elevate beyond the high school crush he had with Jena Malone in Donnie Darko (2001).  He does have a fine emotional moment where he speaks to his father on a cell phone, but that pales in comparison to the emotional impact that results from playing off a live actor in a single scene.  The rest of the cast is at a severe disadvantage because their characters are meant to remain as flat as possible.  I was intrigued by the inclusion of Vera Farmiga in this production as I find her to be equal parts attractive and talented, but her ability to produce a deadpan and (seemingly) disinterested commanding officer was not exceptional.  I am a fan of Jeffrey Wright and his performance as the lead researcher in the Source Code Program.  I have certainly become used to him being a suave rogue as either an antagonist or protagonist and was surprised by his ability to deliver awkward/autistic intellectual command.  The one character that really needed rounding out was Monaghan’s Christina Warren, as it is Gyllenhaal’s attraction to her that causes his character to make a drastic course alteration in the story.  Understanding Christina and her various links to Gyllenhaal’s Colter Stevens would make all the plot twists towards the end of this film much easier to swallow.  I simply wished Monaghan was given that opportunity.

Source Code was a decent film with moderate entertainment value.  If Jake Gyllenhaal is one of your least favorite actors, this movie will be a chore to endure.  At this point, it seems that this film’s box office run has all but ended as we approach the blockbuster march that begins in May.  This film’s premise had plenty of merit, but I cannot help but think a little boost to the budget, a couple of additional scenes and a little more invested in advertising could have launched this production well past a $50 million dollar earning.  This kind of movie does not seem like a quick and shameless money grab, but after factoring in all of the above elements, it really does.  Let’s just say that I would not be shocked if it was discovered that writer Ben Ripley was formerly a script reader who had pieced together the plot of Source Code from a seemingly endless mound of inferior sci-fi script submissions.