The Curmudgeon


Thursday, August 09, 2012

Source Code

Duncan Jones 2011

Three years ago, Duncan Jones directed a very serviceable science-fiction film called Moon. It does have one baffling plot-hole (the evil corporation which is exploiting and deceiving the hero has also considerately programmed the station computer so it can help him find out the truth); but since corporations are rarely monolithic and often stupid, the anomaly is irritating rather than disastrous. For the most part, Moon is intriguing, engaging and - rarest of all in modern science fiction cinema - unpretentious.

Despite the frankly incomprehensible critical acclaim which greeted it, Jones' follow-up has none of these handicaps. Instead, it takes the well-worn route of Hollywood sci-fi from Minority Report through Children of Men to Inception and no doubt beyond: it spends ten minutes setting up an interesting premise, and then uses that premise as an excuse for a feature-length action chase spiced up with sentiment and lots of explosions (or, in this particular case, with the same explosion repeated lots of times). I hope that Source Code doesn't mean Duncan Jones is about to take the Christopher Nolan path, which led from tricksy, character-driven work like Memento and The Prestige to dumbed-down remakes and pompously inflated comic-books; but the signs are not good.

Like almost all modern science fiction films, Source Code gives great concept and very little else; and much of what it does give turns out, upon analysis, to be rather distasteful. A snide scientist (black, of course, and on crutches too; I'm amazed he didn't have braces on his teeth) has developed a means of investigating a terrorist bombing by downloading a soldier's consciousness into that of one of the casualties. The soldier can go back to the bombed train many times, learning more each time; but he only has the eight minutes preceding the explosion in which to work.

Almost everyone in the train carriage, including the bomber, is given more attention than the poor devil whose mind is usurped. In Charles Band's Trancers (1985), which uses the same mind-transfer premise to far better effect, the victims whose bodies have been borrowed are clearly differentiated from their supplanters; indeed, the hero is unable to inflict physical harm on the villain precisely because that would mean harming an innocent man. All we hear of the supplanted soul in Source Code is his name, his job (a teacher - well, how expendable can you get?) and the heroine's opinion that he's "a keeper". Fortunately, our hero turns out to be a keeper too, thanks to the multiverse ex machina at the end; meanwhile, the teacher is simply used, thrown away and forgotten, alike by the film-makers and by their saintly GI dybbuk.

The hero and heroine of Source Code are well-acted, well-scripted, good-looking, emotionally generous robots after the Hollywood template. Rather more interesting as characters are the scientist who developed the process and the female military officer who is the isolated hero's main contact with the outside world. If the film had been made from their point of view, it could have been considerably better. As it is, Source Code is just another saccharine enema of the kind prescribed and administered by legions of Hollywood script doctors from time immemorial. The message is simple: you can have it both ways. You can die honourably saving your buddies and you'll still be able to go home, do a bit of dadbonding and get the girl. Heroism need not mean sacrifice. None of this makes for good science fiction, or for good fiction of any other kind. What it makes for, not to put too fine a point on it, is yet another chunk of fast-paced, professionally-made, CGI-spectacular garbage.


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