Sunday, June 9, 2013

David McGee's So Close and Yet So Far: The Near-Perfect Screenplay of Source Code

So, an alien from the planet of Beta III can see I've been lacking on the reviews lately, largely due to outside elements as well as working on the final piece for 20 Years, which should be finally posted between tomorrow and Wednesday.

In response, a friend of mine who I frequently discuss movies with has had a surprising amount of essays he's written in analysis and critique of many a film he has watched, most of them the modern fare I have very ashamedly shirked to better learn myself on the classics. David McGee is a man who I enjoy discussing film with, half the time he is not poking out fallacies or holes in my scripts or correcting my grammar. In response to my very shameful lack of review output as of recent and his unpublished essays, I have requested and David has graciously acquiesced to allowing me to post his essays. This will be the first of his collection, right now focusing on Duncan Jones' 2011 film Source Code.
We hope you enjoy it.

I’m a quarter of the way into Source Code and I’m thinking to myself, “This is the best movie I’ve seen in a long time.”  The concept is ingenious, the setup is excellent, and the dialogue is masterful.  What an effective way to begin a film—in medias res, so that we experience the same disorientation as our protagonist, Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal).  What a powerful method to engage the audience’s interest.  Of course, it’s a device often used, but rarely to greater effect.  What amazing dialogue written for Stevens and Christina, the apparent stranger across from whom he finds himself sitting on a doomed train in a dead man’s memory.  If you haven’t seen Source Code, stop reading now because, in my best Daniel Day-Lewis impression, there will be spoilers.    
In a lesser movie, Christina would spoon-feed Stevens, whom she thinks is a man named Sean, information that she shouldn’t think he needed to hear simply for the benefit of the audience: “Hey, Sean, it’s me, Christina, remember?  We’ve been friends for five years.  You were there for me when I was having boyfriend problems.  You can talk to me about anything.”  FAIL.  You have to listen closely to catch one of the movie’s best lines: the second time that Stevens enters the source code, he finds that the memory has altered and wonders aloud, “It’s the same train, but it’s different. . . .”  Christina, for whom the event is not recurring, answers, “I feel the same way.”  What powerful restraint!  You have to wrap your brain around what Stevens’ statement would have to mean to her in order for her to respond the way she does; it forces you to be a participant in the movie rather than just a spectator.  “It’s the same train, but it’s different.”  Why would it be different for her?  We know that she just broke up with her boyfriend—not because she contrives an excuse to spell that out for us, but because when her ex calls her, she observes with a grimace, “I hear more from him now than when we were together.”  That’s all she needs to say for us to get the picture and it’s all that she really would say.  We also know from her expressions and body language that she’s attracted to Stevens.  What we can derive from this is that they, as friends, have taken this same train ride together before; now that she’s no longer with her boyfriend, it’s different.  This is never explained, but there’s enough information that we can figure it out for ourselves.

Another example of this extraordinary moderation in exposition is the almost-superhuman decision to avoid giving a reason for the estrangement between Stevens and his father.  We don’t even know that there is an estrangement until he tells Christina what he would do if he had only a few minutes to live: “I would call my father.  I would tell him I’m sorry.”  Sorry for what?  We don’t know.   But that’s the thing—we don’t need to know because it’s enough that Stevens knows.  Later, we hear that everyone who knew Stevens thought he was a hero, even his father.  Even his father?  What does that mean?  Why would he be less likely to think his son a hero?  Again, we don’t know, but we understand.  When Stevens makes his final phone call to his father, the fact that we don’t know the circumstances of their relationship in no way diminishes the power of the moment because we can see what it’s costing him.  Amazingly, neither finds it necessary to mention the reason for their strained relationship—they already know it, so they don’t need to explain it to each other.  One of the masterstrokes of this subplot is that Stevens’ father is never shown.  He exists only as a presence in Stevens’ mind and a voice that we hear twice—once in a recording and once in a phone call.  The fact that we never see him does nothing to undermine his character because it’s clear how important he is to Stevens, so he becomes so to us as well.
As Stevens’ mission to find the bomber of the train becomes clear, it becomes equally clear that, if the tact and finesse that the movie has demonstrated up to this point are just a fluke, there must be some crazy twist about whodunit.  It’s required.  If that’s the case, there are three options for maximum shock value: one, Stevens himself in the person of Sean, whose memory he is inhabiting; two, the commanding officer in charge of his mission; three, Christina, the attractive woman he’s with.  I wondered if Christina might possibly be the culprit in order to spare us any pangs at her eventual demise, but I also thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if they didn’t feel the need to surprise us with some crazy twist ending at all?  Wouldn’t it be great if Stevens could just find the bomber through the natural course of events and let that be a part of the story?”  But this, I thought, was surely too much to hope for.  The filmmakers have a veritable obligation to surprise and amaze; it’s an unwritten rule.  So imagine my surprise when they didn’t try to surprise me—when Stevens did in fact find a bomber who was nobody we either suspected or never would have thought to suspect, somebody who was just on the train.  Again, the lack of surprise in no way detracted from the story; rather, it enhanced it because the movie could be about what it was really about instead of devolving into a story about a red herring.  

One the best touches was to give Dr. Rutledge, the officer in command of Stevens’ mission, a limp and a crutch.  Immediately upon seeing it, I knew it would somehow be relevant later.  “He probably got that limp from blowing up the train earlier,” I predicted.  At the same time, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if he didn’t have the crutch for any particular reason, if he had it just because?”  But that was flatly impossible.  Movie characters are not given personal quirks unless they somehow tie in to the plot; if a character has an eye patch, it’s probably because he got it in a swordfight with the protagonist’s father ten years ago.  So I braced myself for the reveal.  It never came!  The movie had once again exceeded my expectations.  Dr. Rutledge didn’t have a reason for the crutch; it was just who he was.  That’s what happens in real life: not every personal idiosyncrasy people have ends up directly affecting us within two hours.  Some stuff just is. 
Source Code had evaded numerous pitfalls so far and never once stepped wrong, but now the biggest question of all surfaced: would it follow its own rules?  We’ve established the parameters of the source code—we know what it is and what it is not, we know what it can and cannot do.  As we and Stevens learn, it’s not time-travel (though Source Code is essentially a time-travel movie); it’s merely a window into the final eight minutes of a person’s life.  It cannot alter the past; rather, it’s for affecting the present.  Stevens learns this after one foray into the source code when he futilely pulls Christina off the train only to watch her die again the next time.  His efforts are useless and only waste time, his commanding officers explain.  The tragedy has already occurred—Christina, along with all the passengers on the train, is dead; there is no saving her.  The only point of this exercise is to identify the bomber in the source code so they can catch him in reality before he strikes again.
We have the potential for a powerful story here.  We have a ghost train bound for destruction, one man aboard who knows it’s not real and who has a specific mission to accomplish, yet against his better judgment he finds himself becoming more interested in the shade of a dead girl than what he’s there to do.  Not because it’s logical, but because his emotions overcome his reason, he begins to delude himself that he can save her, despite the blatant impossibility of that prospect.  He begins to believe in the fantasy and must deal with the consequences of his foolish emotional involvement.  The plot thickens.  We discover that Stevens himself is not real, that his body—not just the borrowed body that he occupies within the fantasy of the source code, but his body in “reality”—is nothing more than a projection of his subconscious.  He himself is actually half a body in a computerized sarcophagus with his brain literally plugged in to this program run by his superiors in the next room; everything below his chest was blown away in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.  He’s now in a completely vegetative state with this machine keeping him alive—this is his life and the only purpose he serves now.  When Stevens learns the truth, he makes a deal with his superior officer: when the mission is over, pull the plug.

The problem with this trajectory, and its logical conclusion, is that Stevens is becoming emotionally attached to Christina and we are becoming attached to them both.  We know it’s impossible that he save her, or himself, but we want him to anyway.  So as I watched the movie, the question became, would Source Code abide by the guidelines it had set up or would it find a way to weasel out of them?  Would it maintain its integrity or cheat to give us a happy ending?  Movies dealing with the past and future are notorious for this: you cannot change the past, you cannot change the future, this person is gone, you will lose, you are going to die.  They set up wrought-iron rules about what is and isn’t possible and then backpedal because don’t have the guts to follow through.  They get scared.  They cheat.  They find or create loopholes.  They tack on happy endings where they don’t belong and ruin good movies.  Would Source Code be the same way?
My question was answered at the end of one of the most beautiful shots I’ve ever seen.  Stevens has completed his mission, has located the bomber and prevented a second catastrophe.  Now he knows he has only seconds left before his commanding officer respects his wishes and ends the source code’s fantasy with him inside.  Just for the hell of it, he convinces a stand-up comedian on the train to tell a few jokes to the other passengers and get some laughs, and then he takes Christina aside.  He kisses her, and at that moment, we see his superior officer press a button, and we know it means.  The moment in the source code freezes.  Stevens and Christina are locked in a passionate embrace, and the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the rest of the passengers frozen in silent laughter at the comedian’s jokes—the moment is at once beautiful, tragic, and inexplicably joyful.  “Fade out,” I yelled at the screen.  “Fade out!  Fade out!”   
It didn’t.
The filmmakers had caved.  They’d sold out.  Turns out that the source code has created its own entirely new reality and now, even turned off, it’s still going on.  Captain Colter Stevens now gets to live out his life as Sean the high school history teacher, newly united with Christina.  Oh, but he can still send emails to the real reality and let them know that he’s okay.  The problems that this spawns are endless.  First, what happened to the real Sean?  He’s been displaced from his own body; does his essence no longer exist?  What are the physical and ethical implications of that?  How is Stevens supposed to teach a history class?  And how is Christina supposed to stay in love with him when it was Sean she fell in love with?  He might look the same but he’s a completely different person now.  But all that paled in comparison to the fact that they had the perfect ending.  With the perfect shot.  And they blew it.
The last ten or fifteen minutes of Source Code were excruciating because they shouldn’t have existed.  It should have ended on that one perfect shot, and because it didn’t, it utterly destroyed everything it had accomplished.  I felt betrayed.  Source Code had failed unforgivably because it had come so close to—no, it had achieved perfection and then thrown it all away.  Those who say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all should watch this movie.  They might think twice.

Also what the fuck is this bean thing?
-David McGee is a filmmaker/writer/friend of STinG's currently stuck on life support repeating reviews until he gets them the fuck right.

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