Source Code

It’s the new me

You can follow a little trail of breadcrumbs from here to the beginning of this blog, and you can stuff the stale pieces in a nice deep Tupperware tub labeled “Stuff R.H. hates about movies.”  A recent nitpick has been the lack of, shall we say, “completion,” in thriller films (and this includes every subgenre – suspense thriller, sci-fi thriller, crime thriller, covers of M.J.’s Thriller, whatever).  I think we finally have a winner.

Speaking of breadcrumb trails, Source Code, the newest film from Duncan Jones (the son of David Bowie), actually has a comprehensible one.  First off, in order to stay within the bounds of the film’s projected gravitas, make a mental note that this is a sci-fi thriller.  Next, pay close attention to everything happening in the immediate background if you can – a lot of the fun is in unwinding the mystery yourself.

The story follows Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a chopper pilot in the American military who awakens aboard a moving train and doesn’t recognize his own reflection.  Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) sits across from him, referring to him as “Sean” and acting as though they’ve known each other forever.  Eight minutes later, the train explodes, and Colter awakens again, this time in an ice-cold space-age capsule, and to the disembodied voice of Vera Farmiga.  He soon learns from Farmiga’s character, Goodwin, that he is part of a special government program (guess its name!) used to prevent future disasters based on clues from the past.  Colter has been a part of this program for two months (though he thinks he’s only been there a day), and his mission is to uncover the identity of the terrorist who bombed the train – he will do it by inhabiting the body of Sean Fentress, one of the regular commuters.  In a sobering revelation, Goodwin tells Colter the train’s passengers are all dead. He is not going “back in time” to change what happened, but finding out who bombed the train in order to prevent future attacks.

The film is atmospheric and engaging from the get-go.  As soon as Colter wakes up, we know something’s awry.  The tendency of the camera lens to linger on minor details suggests we should be paying attention to Colter’s surroundings: a woman spilling coffee on Colter’s shoe, a passenger opening a soda can, a guy in the back referring to the conductor as “grandpa,” and Christina’s exact words.  When Colter is pulled out, the audience engagement only intensifies.  In many sci-fi films, we have a similar setup, then when the sci-fi part begins, we’re fed techy nonsense til we choke.  Here, it ups the stakes.  The conditions of Colter’s “capsule” – a term which briefly confounds the program’s inventor and overseer, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) – worsen.  Water begins leaking on the floor, and the windows frost over.  Communication with Goodwin becomes difficult.  We’re with Colter here, and we want to know what’s going on, but even more so (for now, at least) we want him to get back in there and find the bomber.  The filmmakers deliberately avoid showing us what Goodwin sees on her computer screen, and Rutledge continually insists that there is no time to lose.

The film’s twists are satisfying and unsettling, and the plot retains urgency throughout.  Farmiga and Monaghan provide gentle surfaces for Gyllenhaal’s rough hero to play against, and Wright’s limping pseudo-mad-scientist is a delicious antagonist, even though he’s not exactly a “bad guy.”  That role goes to Derek Frost (Michael Arden), lesser-seen but of key importance, who replaces the tired, unfair “Muslim terrorist” stereotype with a character who provides disturbing reminders of Timothy McVeigh, particularly when explaining why the train is to be destroyed.

Really, though, the four main actors drive this entire film, each occupying essential driving forces – Farmiga, Monaghan, Wright and Arden are like four sides of a box keeping Gyllenhaal in.  Wright, who is often given very little to do in films, gets a lot of dialogue in this one, and he’s an actor whose voice is a pleasure in itself.  We never find out why the character of Rutledge walks with a crutch, though it doesn’t get enough focus to become a red herring.

The development of Christina hits a roadblock because we only get a glimpse at the final eight minutes of her life, and being dead, she can only exist when Colter is in the Source Code.  Michelle Monaghan plays innocent well, and is a comfortable presence throughout the film, but all things considered, Christina herself does very little aside from talking about men and reacting accordingly to each new thing Colter does within the Source Code.  “You’re the pretty girl; the distraction,” Colter says when he’s still convinced Source Code is a training simulation.  The audience, perhaps, should consider that statement in regards to the film itself.  Farmiga, on the other hand, plays a strong military woman (and a living one, no less) but also has little to do outside of dealing with man-influenced (manfluenced?) crises.  It’s worth noting, though, to a point, that the most pivotal decision in the film’s climax is left up to her.

Very little goes unexplained or left behind in the film, which is a refreshing departure from recent thrillers such as Unknown, where we tried to stay with Liam Neeson but were left in the dust ourselves.  Even when Colter uses one of his Source Code trips to learn of his own whereabouts and discovers he may actually be dead – hinted at when Goodwin states that the requirements for Source Code mission candidacy are “very narrow” – we’re still with him, in both worlds.  The “dead” Colter begins to wonder whether Source Code doesn’t actually create a whole new reality, since he has already realized train passengers can be saved and people outside the train scenario can be contacted (i.e. other “versions” of Rutledge and Goodwin, Colter’s father, etc).  The results of his leap of faith in the end – testing this theory at the expense of fully dying instead of remaining a tool for further Source Code projects – are an excellent, satisfying payoff for the stress this film puts us through.  Just try to tell yourself that Colter’s only reason for doing it wasn’t his inexplicable obsession with “saving” a perfectly normal woman he’s only known for a few minutes.

A few questions: why is Rutledge seen as villainous?  Yes, his methods are rather ruthless (a word spelled almost like his name, not-so-ironically), but he is truly attempting to save millions of lives.  Through his antagonism, we get the impression that the filmmakers, at least, think Source Code as a whole is a bad idea.  Is it unethical?  Certainly.  Taking mortally wounded soldiers (without permission) and preventing them from dying in order to endlessly fight terrorism in an alternate timeline.  Yeah, agreed there.  It just seems like, with some kind of modification, this sort of thing would be a good idea.  I like the implication, however, that Source Code is an “afterlife” option for chosen people.  Makes you wonder where we really are in this film, what Wright’s “I have an eternal plan for you” scientist represents, what Farmiga’s caressing, guiding voice is really saying.  The beauty of this film is that you can speculate while also being 100% sure of what happened in the story when you leave the theatre.

Source Code is well-acted, performed with straight faces and the utmost urgency, and doesn’t purposely lose us in its complexities (nor does it bore us with hard science; see Primer).  Is the film’s science preposterous?  Sure.  But it’s the Fiction part that keeps the film’s heart beating.

Source Code (2011); written by Ben Ripley; directed by Duncan Jones; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Mahmoud Ahma-Gyllenhaal-ejad

This is what I’m talking about: a game-based film with reputable actors, engaging action, decent dialogue, good-looking CG (if any), and Uwe Boll nowhere near it.  Thanks to Mike Newell and Jerry Bruckheimer, the next filmmakers who adapt a game to film may try a little bit harder.

I’ve never been one for game-to-film (nor book-to-film, for that matter) adaptations.  I believe that games are games for a reason, and as a writer, that books are written text for a reason.  But since nothing I say will stop these money-magnet films from being made, no matter the quality, I keep going out to see the ones that pique my interest (I’m looking at you, The King of Fighters).  Jake Gyllenhaal mentioned in an interview earlier this year that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time would change the way people looked at game-to-film movies, i.e. they would now be looked at as real films instead of kitschy novelty acts.  This film does that, albeit still giving you what you’d expect from a film of the genre: lots of battles, CG-assisted parkour, muscly heroes, etc.

The cast is a good place to start.  I realized this film was going to be something different when an early scene featured Ben Kingsley, Jake Gyllenhaal and Toby Kebbell in the same room.  Kingsley, a veteran, gives the rest of the (much younger) cast plenty of breathing space until his pivotal scenes (which start about halfway through the movie).  Gyllenhaal plays Prince Dastan (yup, he’s got a name now) as a likable Aladdin-like troublemaker who is always undermining his family but manages to stay on the side of the audience.  Kebbell, best-known as druggie rockstar Johnny Quid in Guy Ritchie’s excellent RocknRolla, has his first meaty role in a while here, playing Dastan’s older brother and head of the Persian army, Garsiv.  The film also features the lovely Gemma Arteron, who is really coming into her own as an actress but also making a habit of being in blockbuster fantasy reimaginings (see Clash of the Titans – or better yet, don’t – she plays a good role in that film but her screen time is stomped out by Sam Worthington’s “boring hero” act).  Arteron plays Princess Tamina, a ruler with some knowledge of pagan magic.  Alfred Molina also appears in an amusing role as an oddball who races ostriches (“every tuesday and thursday”).

The film is a surprisingly fair (and fictional) portrayal of the people who are now Iranians (unlike the embarrassing 300, a myspace/macho man film which depicts the Persians as deformed creatures of pure malice).  I can’t ignore the fact that the Persians are all played by white actors with English accents, but I’ll take what I can get from Hollywood these days.  The film could have used more ethnic characters in Persian roles, but it’s nearly enough that the Persian government isn’t portrayed as morally corrupt or otherwise reprehensible.  The search for Alamut’s “secret weapons” and the absence thereof is largely an allegory to U.S.’s search for “weapons of mass destruction,” which we won by simply having them not exist…I digress.  Thankfully, in the film, not too much focus is spent on this.

The on-location sets are great and the art direction is excellent, despite the fact that the costumes are made more from the standpoint of “cool art direction” and not from real-life source material.

The story is your standard popcorn fare: orphan gets mixed up in something big, ends up in a battle, touches a magical macguffin, gets framed for something and goes on the run with a beauty who can’t stand him.  The actors, however, make this plot very easy to swallow despite how many times you’ve seen it, and the plot takes interesting turns especially near the end.  If you haven’t seen the trailers and promos, it’s not immediately obvious that Kingsley will turn out to be the villain (although he wouldn’t be in a film without a large role), and there are even some other interesting bad guys in the form of the Hassansins (or Hashshashins- from which the word “assassin” is thought to originate), based on the historical group of Muslims who split from the Fatimid Empire.  Their use of throwing darts and poisons is only myth, but it serves the nature of this film well, and helps take the responsibility of action scenes that will impress teenagers away from the 66-year-old Kingsley.

As far as the source material, the film isn’t based on a specific story from one of the games, but it takes reference material from each of the biggest titles and throws them in for fun (and you don’t have to be familiar with it at all to get the full enjoyment).  The parkour and climbing scenes mimic what we love best about the Prince series; the swordfight with a guy who looks peculiarly like the guy you fight at the end of the original game; the Sands of Time themselves; and the relationship dynamics of Dastan/Tamina echo the newer game (the Xbox 360 version, not the movie tie-in).

 

In closing, this is a fun film if you just want action and stock dialogue, but is also engaging enough for the film buff (or if you don’t like that term, which I’m starting not to as much because I’m realizing I don’t know all of its contexts, we’ll say “serious filmgoer” or “cinema veteran”).  The acting is solid, the actors seem like they want to be there (unlike many films of this type), the use of “magic” has appropriate focus and doesn’t ruin everything, and even the vaguely-explained plot twist at the end (which almost cheats, but you can judge) provides a satisfying experience.  Perhaps if they make a sequel, we’ll get actual ethnic characters?  Oy, let’s not get too progressive now.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010); written Boaz Makin and Doug Miro; directed by Mike Newell; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arteron, Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina.

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