9/11 is the new Jesus. Let me explain. Jesus’ birth is a dividing point for the Gregorian calendar. Every time you mention a year, you are in effect mentioning it in the context of Jesus’ birth. I’m not exactly an expert on religion, but I don’t see why this guy should have time itself named after him. I mean…it’s TIME. It’s sort of like if we decided, as a society, that we REALLY like Steve, and like him so much we’re going to name “space” after him. From now on, space will be called “steve”. “Honey, do we have enough steve in the closet for these blankets?”. As far as I can tell, Jesus was a carpenter that told people to care for their fellow man and got his ass beat because of it. Maybe this date thing was a big collective “I’m sorry” from the human race, like the lifetime achievement Oscar Hitchcock received after never actually winning one for best director.
Well, it seems like 9/11 has become a similar dividing point in history. You can’t watch the news without someone bringing up that we live in a “post-9/11 world”. Accordingly, our entertainment (at least mainstream wise) has followed suit, and we get movies about 9/11 (World Trade Center, United 93), movies that are metaphors for 9/11 (War of the Worlds), and movies with generic terrorist attacks, like, I dunno, Source Code for example. Just as certain asshole newspeople will discuss everything in terms of a “post-9/11 world”, certain film critics will ascribe post-9/11 values and meaning to almost every movie. Armond White is especially guilty of this (note to self: stop reading Armond White). For example, his recent review of Transformers 3 has about 37 references to the World Trade Center attacks (note to self: stop leaving “notes to self” in reviews and maybe get a Blackberry instead).
Source Code is, at its core, about Jake Gyllenhaal’s attempt to catch a terrorist before he blows something up. Rather than a token Arab character, the terrorist is a white American douchebag that blows up innocent people for no reason, just like the villain from Live Free or Die Hard (played by what’s-his-face). I guess this is less confrontational to an audience than having an Arab character play the terrorist, as nobody takes if offense if douchebags are broadly painted as evil murderers. Some may question why these generic terrorists in movies don’t really have any stated reason why they are murdering people (like religion or what have you). However, any reasoning they might come up with is going to be totally stupid anyway.
The film is also, I guess, one of the first “post-Inception” films, taking well worn action material and breaking it up with “Matrix-y” innovations. On its face, Source Code is also one of those bomb diffusion thrillers where Jake has to find a bomb, snip either the blue wire or the red wire and save the day in the process. By the way, the “which wire to cut?” cliché is truly annoying. As Roger Ebert astutely noted in his review of Armageddon, that turdfest from Michael “turdfest” Bay, the FIRST thing a bomb diffuser should know is whether to cut the red wire or the blue wire.
However, in a clever innovation, the bomb diffuser is an everyman soldier forced into action because he wields the best memory in the military, and not because he has any sort of bomb diffusion experience. He becomes part of a mission he wants no part of, an unwilling hero, rather than your typical badass bomb diffuser. Take, for example, Steven Seagal’s character, a “zen leader of a bomb squad”, in Albert Pyun’s amusing Speed ripoff Ticker. You know damn well Seagal is gonna diffuse whatever bomb he comes across, if for no better reason than if the director asks him to fail on screen, he’ll snap his fucking collarbone and piss on his soul. Boy that guy’s got an ego. Then again, he starred in Out For Justice, so he gets a “get out of asshole jail free” card as far as I’m concerned.
So, why pick the guy with the best memory? Well, this is where things gets Inception-y. Jake has to diffuse a bomb not in reality, but in a memory lasting only 8 minutes. These 8 minutes are repeated, one after another, until he is able to accomplish his goal. The bombing has already happened, and he is sent inside the memories of a victim on the train to, not diffuse the bomb as he eventually finds out, but rather to find the lame terrorist’s identity before he strikes again. Jake is on a train of people that will blow up no matter his actions, and he is helpless to do anything about it except to gain intelligence to prevent a future bombing. This is another nice tweak on the action hero mythos, where a hero is not only doomed to failure. A true hero is not going to stand by as a terrorist blows up a train of innocent people, but Jake has no choice in the matter.
If this sounds a bit like Groundhog Day, it’s because it IS a bit like Groundhog Day. Maybe Groundhog Day meets Inception meets the bomb diffuser thriller of your choice (I’ll say Executive Action to keep the Seagal references going). Unfortunately, the script also adopts the love angle from Groundhog Day, having Jake fall for the girl (Michelle Monaghan) over the course of many repeated stabs at a first impression. Now, I think Michelle is hot as much as the next guy, but this is MEMORY Michelle who is about to be blown up, and not "real deal Holyfield" Michelle. It should come as little surprise that there is a “love conquers all” ending, but the way they get there is pretty forced (no further spoilers…you’re welcome). Just as in the producer's cut of Brazil, taking a subversive sci-fi story and forcing in a “love conquers all” ending is pretty lame if I do say so myself.
In my opinion (well, what other asshole’s opinion could I be referring to), what we have here is the basic material for a brilliantly subversive genre piece, despite being stitched together in true “Hollywood high concept” fashion. While usually anathema to drama, this approach can work like gangbusters for more genre orientated stuff. However, the script itself is a big let down, mostly in the aforementioned love angle, but also in the characterization. Jake does his very best to portray a conflicted, wounded hero whose ineffectiveness is emotionally wearing. However, the script makes him seem a like a child that careens wildly from blunt approach to blunt approach within each new memory. The thriller details are also handled clumsily, despite a potential goldmine for suspense. Director Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie, although I just found that out, which gives me hope that he’s not completely riding on the shoulders of his father) does his best to vary up the scenes in accordance to the script, as separate passes at imminent disaster, and to keep things moving and taut. However, as is the case with many Hollywood blockbusters nowadays, the script lets everyone involved down, feeling as if scenes were written individually, instead of sculpted for the whole.
There’s also the science-y talk that justifies the memory gimmick. It takes up a bit too much screen time for something that is mostly irrelevant. Once you clearly establish that the film is a post 9/11 bomb thriller with alternate universe rules, the science behind it loses importance. Having said that, it does at least sound vaguely credible to someone who doesn’t know much about cutting edge science, unlike a movie like, say, The Giant Claw, which just shoves horseshit down our throats. Then again, that’s sort of a virtue of its own.
There is also some shitty CGI that is forced in than for no better reason that recent Hollywood blockbusters need shitty CGI to justify their corporate existence. Just as the military industrial complex requires wars to justify the spending of taxpayer’s money on military technology, so does Hollywood require CGI-fests to facilitate expenditures on cutting edge digital technology. Yeah, I understand that you don’t want to blow up a real train, so you blow up a CGI train instead, but that doesn’t excuse the lame CGI cutaways with Michelle’s CGI head being blown up in video game fashion. Whether inexplicable wars or inexplicable CGI, man should have control over his technology. Admittedly, that is one of science fiction’s most enduring “cliches”, but some cliches are cliché for a reason.