Sunday, April 3, 2011

Identity Crisis: The Source Code Switcheroo

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

That’s the opening line in George Orwell’s classic book, 1984. Here it is once more the “cruelest month,” as poet T.S. Eliot contended in The Waste Land, and a similarly bright cold day. Not so sure about the clocks, but the foreboding in those 20th century literary works surely resonates today. The 1949 novel concerns a totalitarian dystopia where the term “memory hole” refers to enforced amnesia and “Newspeak” is language dumbed-down to foster lack of logical thought. Eliot’s twisty 1922 verses include “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” “One must be so careful these days” and other despairing observations.

Two new films, The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code (released on April 1st), suggest Big Brother-like societies. In the former production, adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story, Matt Damon plays a politician who encounters the unseen forces – all wearing fedoras! – that manipulate our lives. Source Code, cleverly written by Ben Ripley and smartly directed by Duncan Jones, is a sci-fi thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as U.S. Army Captain Colter Stevens. His last memory is of flying a helicopter mission in Afghanistan when he’s suddenly transported onto a commuter train heading for Chicago with a bomb onboard.

Michelle Monaghan and Jake Gyllenhaal
But Colter has now become a stranger named Sean sitting with Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), a pretty young woman hoping to reconfigure her life by quitting a job and dropping an unworthy boyfriend. They have lovely old-fashioned chemistry in a story propelled by futuristic technology. Meanwhile, he feels panic upon seeing an unfamiliar face (that of actor Frederick De Granpre) staring back at him in a restroom mirror, although still looking like handsome Jake Gyllenhaal to us. When the blast takes place, the soldier is catapulted back to his true self in the present but for some reason confined to a claustrophobic pod in a hush-hush military lab.

That’s where two manipulative commanders, one possibly compassionate and the other Mephistophelean, issue instructions to him via a video feed. Their goal is the common good, but the methodology might qualify as oppressive.  Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) has the hands-on responsibilities for the project, inexplicably dubbed “Beleaguered Castle.” Her equally mysterious boss Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) invented the experimental computer program that allows Colter’s consciousness to inhabit a different body for just eight minutes before that person’s death in the recent past. During each of his brief stints as Sean, the mission is to figure out who’s behind the seemingly inevitable explosion – in order to prevent an escalation of the terrorist plot guaranteed to wreak havoc in the Windy City.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code
Get that? Good, because at first Colter does not. He mutters “It makes no sense!” Although his understanding begins to evolve, the full explanation is revealed very slowly.  Meanwhile, his resourcefulness takes center stage. In The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka – another writer who explored menacing government bureaucracy – turned his main character into a cockroach. The transformation in Source Code doesn’t involve insects, but Rutledge compares Colter to something more inanimate than that: “the hands on a clock,” moving inexorably toward a foregone conclusion. The device created by this slightly mad scientist is linked to “the electromagnetic field of the human brain,” “synaptic maps” and the “continuum of quantum physics.”

As if to underscore that theory, the voice of Colter’s unseen father comes from Scott Bakula of Quantum Leap fame. The NBC series (1989-1993) focused on a physicist whose flawed experiment sends him hurtling through time into the bodies of unsuspecting folks, while remaining in his original form for viewers. He’s able to alter the course of events only slightly. This little casting joke would be lost on audience members who bolt from the theater before closing credits, though.

Source Code director Duncan Jones
Another funny bit in that final roll call of everyone involved with the film: “Editorial Esprit de Corps – Eleanor Rigby.” Is it a coincidence, done for laughs or an actual homage? “Ah, look at all the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?” That could describe the passengers on the presumably doomed train, each of whom becomes a suspect as Colter searches for the bomber, and then a potential victim. The Beatles tune indicates that Rigby “lives in a dream.” His eight-minute Source Code experiences are decidedly dreamlike, as he falls for charming Christina, but they turn into nightmares again and again once everything goes ka-boom. There are echoes of Inception (2010) and Groundhog Day (1993) in a reality that appears to be nothing more than a shifting landscape. Numerous releases good and bad (All of Me, Big, Freaky Friday, Scooby-Doo, Mulholland Drive, 18 Again, etc.) used the gimmick of swapping physical entities.

Jones, son of “Space Oddity” composer-singer David Bowie, made his feature directorial debut with Moon (2009), in which an astronaut (Sam Rockwell) employed by a mining corporation has been on a solo lunar mission for three years. All the lonely people, indeed. His only companion is GERTY, a soft-spoken computer – think HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – until he is abruptly confronted with another non-cyber being. Oh-oh, Ground Control to Major Tom. This year, it’s Mind Control to Captain Colter. In examining the nature of free will, time and fate, the Source Code plot is driven by a ticking clock that may well strike thirteen.

 Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier ofLaw & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion. 

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