Source Code baffles, stutter-steps to make every second count but fails, repeatedly.
Minimalist, at times trying, the maneuverings of Duncan Jones’ PG13 sci-fi thriller Source Code makes convoluted the new necessary when in actuality it’s just repetitive, cumbersome and slow. Jones is too smart for his own good, this his sophomoric second feature following a critically praised and incomparable Moon with Sam Rockwell, relying on short cut metaphors and blocky symbolism to fuel an otherwise bland take on the ticking clock scenario, chasing the sort of self-importance that Nolan brandishes with zeal. Tangled like an exercise in plot mechanics, the story feels like a blueprint manufactured during Hollywood boardroom hash parties and thirty-second elevator pitches that end with a ‘ding’. If you’re looking for crafted storytelling with fully realized characters and an emotional quality to relationships, you’re in the wrong theater. If you prefer your soup thin, your ideas a palatable gray of easily digestible and oddly familiar portions, Source Code will suffice; a film that is every bit suggestion and innuendo with some running and explosions to give the illusion of substance and a trailer with sharp edges.
More interesting is what this film suggests about our obsession with violence and voyeurism, about our subconscious need for death row pardons, second chances and meritocracy. In films about heroism and dutiful self-sacrifice, stories where someone is always dying for the betterment of all at the cost of a few, we get side tracked by the message, deployed to unfurl like a parachute blossom, covering poor delivery and sentimentality. After the first 8 minutes of Source Code the story slows to a stop and idles far too long to feel like anything is moving – not even the train. Before we can figure out what is happening the same people meet the same recycled fate, sometimes in slow motion, sometimes from a distance with no more than a kaboom, a puff of black smoke, a resounding flutter. Not to worry, the 8 minutes can be replayed until the soldier gets it right – and they are, ad infinitum. You could say this story is about the abuse of power and the absence of oversight in the face of uncharted ethical and moral ambiguity. Maybe it’s just about a soldier’s sense of identity and desire to reclaim his individuality when the service he believed in fails to live up to what it once was. Either way, you need an appreciation for redundancy and CG reaction-acting to connect with this story – or you could just sit through the same explosion a few dozen times to see if anything materializes.
If Source Code were a train wreck, literally, it would come apart in slow motion, replayed with nearly imperceptible changes along the way, changes set to automatic pilot, and arrive eventually, in smoldering pieces and fragments nearly imperceptible as pieces of a train. The mission is clear even if the story is not. If the mysterious people in control, the ones with the replay button that appear mostly in the monitor of Colter Steven’s ship, have something to learn it is only through repetition. Unfortunately they don’t find what they’re looking for right away and neither do we. We’re left stranded in fog, intrigued by dream speak from people who have either died or will die, people who are hard to care about if they are just going to blow up at the end of the conversation. Eventually things shift and the people who need saving are elsewhere, everywhere, but we don’t see them or know them or see their faces. The people we see are the impressions of people, a television signal or radio transmission in space carrying Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at the birth of sitcom or Andy Griffith before he stopped smiling so much; we can make the connection but its peripheral, disjointed – much the way we feel about someone who has been dead for years. Films like this fade along with box office receipts and cash register drawers, and while the bits are different the road is the same, important looking bombs and spilled coffee and the hapless passenger who just wants to return a lost wallet, not stop thermonuclear war.
Consider this the lite version of drama, the warning sign that the bridge up ahead has fallen down and a lot of people have died, a squint-view of the Tsunami wave from a distance so you don’t see the arms and legs floating in the tide. You never get so much as a dirty toe traipsing in the underbrush of Source Code, not so much as a stubbed toe or puncture vine pricked heel. At the end, after the last explosion and the last regurgitated chunks blow by in that slow motion whirl the Wachowski brothers made famous in the Matrix, and we realize there were no rules the whole time. The characters lose it all and gain so much more. We want to believe so much in ridiculous it almost feels right, the concept of it anyway, except we don’t live in suggestion and innuendo, and our explosions kill people.