Friday, April 1, 2011

"Source Code" Review

"Source Code" isn't even vaguely plausible. I try not to overthink sci-fi spitballing, but even the most preposterous premises should adhere to an implicit rule set. Based on a screenplay by Ben Ripley, who previously authored two direct-to-DVD "Species" flicks, this lazy follow-up to director Duncan Jones' understated 2009 character study "Moon" is a major disappointment.

Steeped in pseudo-science, "Source Code's" biggest fault is its failure to adequately explain the parameters of the titular alternate reality experiment. Through vague governmental computer wizardry, Army Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is uploaded into the body of a civilian aboard an ill-fated Chicago-bound commuter train and tasked with locating a rigged explosive and its owner. To complicate matters, he only has eight minutes until impact and it's back to start.

So begins a trial and error rescue mission—not to save the train itself, but to identify the culprit and avert a looming second attack. If you're already confused, don't sweat it—Stevens is too. After every botched attempt, he finds himself back in a dank isolation room harnessed into an enormous machine with a video link to his commanding officers. As he probes them for more information on his mission, he also pries out the requisite exposition about the tech.

Long story short, Source Code isn't time travel. It merely relocates Stevens' consciousness into the lingering memory trail of the recently deceased. Cool, right? The problem is that such a heady concept immediately opens itself to a thousand potential plot holes. For instance, if Stevens is reliving the terminal eight minutes of someone's life, why can he exit the train at random when the body and mind he's sharing has no frame of reference for it? How does he even know what the passengers two cars over look like?

Even if you buy into the flawed logic of "Source Code," the filmmaking just isn't up to snuff. Jones throws subtlety to the wind for this antithetical take on the genre he seemed so passionate for two years ago. He imbues the proceedings with a nondescript glossy veneer and achieves unanimously stilted performances from his cast. Character actor Jeffrey Wright comes away looking especially bad, but Gyllenhaal is also mismanaged in the lead.

It isn't their fault; Jones lacks vision and Ripley lacks talent. The latter in particular seems incapable of executing on even his better ideas interestingly. By his hand, Stevens' lame bomb-sniffing stratagem boils down to blindly badgering suspicious-looking commuters and eventually lucky guesswork. Maybe some will respond to his common sense approach, but I much prefer watching characters more clever than myself weasel their way out of trouble. For all his military training, Captain Stevens might as well have been Joe Average Passenger.

A far cry from the careful construction of Duncan Jones' offbeat debut, "Source Code" is a discouragingly impersonal film shellacked with Hollywood disinfectant. Worse, it's plain bad science fiction. It's a halfhearted amalgam of films like "The Matrix" and "Inception," hold the fresh perspective. Still, I'm not ready to count Jones out. The young director had a hand in fleshing out "Moon," and will hopefully creatively contribute more to future projects. However, as it stands, his first two features couldn't be more at odds. Taken alone, "Source Code" is a misfire; given that it's the sophomore effort of so promising a talent, it's a major missed opportunity.


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