Friday, November 28, 2014

Source Code

Source Code is very probably what Inception would have felt like had Christopher Nolan done away completely with intrigue and kept a happier, feel-good ending. For some, it may appear a contemporary sci-fi drama par excellence. As it is, however, the film stops just short of being a blunder, the sort of contraption Nolan may have directed had he believed in geometry as his artistic guiding principle for the first two-thirds, and quadrangles for the next third. I can call it neither "bad" nor "good".

The fault, as in films teetering between “good” and “bad”, is not very evident at first glance. It certainly isn’t in its casting. One is left to conclude that no other actor could have played its main role more effectively than Jake Gyllenhaal. My only problem with the cast was how it related to the wider story and its underlying themes. The plot – in its most essential form – concerns a hi-tech, top-secret military computer program that can transport someone back in time into the body of a now dead person minutes before his or her death. In this particular case, Gyllenhall wakes up, dazed and confused, on a train. He has absolutely no idea where he is, or why he is there at all. To make matters worse, all evidence on his body suggests that he is someone else – even his own reflection in the mirror.

Coming from the same actor who sustained our interest in the big puzzle in Donnie Darko, the performance was top-notch to say the least. One of Gyllenhaal’s strengths seems to be in portraying confused individuals who have no clue as to their destinies, and he epitomises one such role in this one. Anyway, moving on. Minutes later, he “dies” in a bomb attack, and gets transported to the present, which is inside a capsule that shrieks of absolute secrecy. His only communicants in the world – a duty-bound female officer and a bureaucratic scientist (the latter played by Jeffrey Wright) insist that he continue his duty: find who planted the bomb, because it might be the first of several more to come.

I was quite deliciously happy at this premise, and director Duncan Jones’ handling of it. Jones ensures that interest is kept right throughout by three things – Gyllenhaal’s quest to learn his true identity, his quirky relationship with the other passengers on the train (which offers some really hilarious moments), and Wright’s belligerent, almost megalomaniac insistence on getting the job done. Wright’s character is a paradox – he is passionately dedicated to ensuring that no more bombs explode throughout Chicago, but one suspects this is probably rooted in his desire to see his project, titled “Source Code”, work out. Substitute the desire for more votes, with a little touch of xenophobia and warmongering, and Jones may well have created Wright’s character in the mould of Dick Cheney.

Jones would have, however, done better had he kept the lines of interest in the story limited to those three plot-drivers listed above. Alas, this is exactly what he does not do, and what he introduces as a fourth plotline is wholly inapt and ineffective for the whole story. He brings in an almost heroic contrivance on Gyllenhaal’s part. I will not reveal much here, but will say this much – Gyllenhaal discovers who he is, and, despairing over it, develops a conviction that he can save not only this day, but probably something more as well. Nolan, I feel, would have been adept at this sort of thing. His characters very rarely bring about heroic endings, but when they do, it doesn’t amount to contrivances that feel somewhat false, as it does in here.

There’s another thing too. Nolan doesn’t reveal much. He is a master at the elliptical style in his scripts and dialogues. Duncan Jones’ method, on the other hand, is to explain everything away – his characters usually spend, or waste, precious time explaining away stuff – so much so that we’re hardly surprised at the “big twist” in the end. I know it’s supposed to be a twist, but frankly, with all those explanations and heroic gestures and what-not, I felt the real surprise would have come had the ending not turned out to be what it does here. I am not calling Source Code a disappointment in the final analysis. However, it could have been made somewhat more interesting.