by HELEN GEIB
The story in Source Code concerns investigating the past to alter the future. In that spirit, I will reveal that I write a mental outline of my reviews before I put fingers to keyboard, and that my thinking about Source Code tells me this will be a difficult review to write. First, I’m going to have to break my personal rule against including spoilers and second, it will be tough to be dispassionate. The former because the ending ruins what had been quite an enjoyable movie. The latter because I dislike being taken for a fool.
The filmmakers and the audience for a science fiction film have an unstated pact. The audience agrees to accept the premise, no matter how outlandish. The filmmakers agree to adhere to internal logic.
The outlandish premise of Source Code is a variation on time travel paradox. Army pilot Captain Colter Smith (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been recruited as the operative in an experimental, top-secret project. His consciousness will enter the mind of a dead man, the victim of a commuter train bombing, in the last eight minutes of his life. Captain Smith’s task is to discover the bomber’s identity before he can strike again, and he will have to re-live those eight minutes over and over until he does. As he spends more time on the train, he starts to want to stop the bombing and save the passengers, especially the lovely Christina (Michelle Monaghan), but there’s a catch: he’s not really going back in time. He’s inside the dead man’s “source code,” mind-generated electrical waves that scientists have used to create an artificial reality.
For viewers willing to enter into the pact, Source Code is a fun ride. The story creates a strong dramatic situation and there are some surprises in the plot (the trailer didn’t give away as much as I thought). Director Duncan Jones keeps things moving so you don’t have time to linger unduly on the conundrum. The actors do a good job, especially Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga, who plays his control room handler. The politically correct bomber and his plan are ludicrous and the evil scientist behind the project is a cliche, but those aren’t critical flaws.
The problem is the last few minutes. In thrall to the trick ending (it’s over *sigh of relief* but wait, it’s not over! the monster still lives!) and the rigid, narrowly defined “Hollywood happy ending,” the filmmakers break the pact. Internal logic goes out the window in a deeply unsatisfying conclusion.
I’m going to step up on my soapbox for a moment and talk about what makes a crowd-pleasing ending. Many Hollywood decision makers obviously believe that the only crowd-pleasing ending is a conventional happy ending. Of course, that’s absurd. Just look at all the hugely popular movies that don’t have a conventional happy ending. (Gone With the Wind, anyone?) But they think that.
What they don’t get is that the best ending is the ending that’s right for the story. A crowd-pleasing ending is the ending that the story has been building to, that makes sense for the characters we’ve gotten to know, and that fits the mood and spirit of the film. Source Code reaches its natural end point a few minutes before the credits start. It’s not bright and cheerful, but it’s the ending the movie has been building to. It’s poignant and redemptive and emotionally satisfying. It’s good storytelling, and that’s the best way to please the crowd.
Rating in the alternate reality where the movie ends at its natural end point: 3 stars
Rating in this reality: 1 1/2 stars
Possibly Related Posts: (Commentary Track generated)
Director Duncan Jones made his name with the very fine sci-fi indie Moon, a satisfying drama that isn’t in thrall to the Hollywood happy ending.