Foundas on Film: Source Code, Super
It was Alfred Hitchcock who famously defined cinematic suspense as showing the audience a ticking time bomb under a table, and then showing two men sitting at that same table talking about baseball, unaware of their imminent doom. In the jaunty time-travel thriller Source Code, which tips its hat to Hitch early and often, director Duncan Jones shows us just such a bomb hidden on a crowded commuter train bound for downtown Chicago, and gives us a hero, Air Force Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has eight minutes to find the bomb—and, more importantly, identify the bomber—before everything goes boom. But since eight-minute plots do not feature-length movies make, there’s a catch. For starters, the good Cpt. Stevens isn’t really a passenger on the train; rather, he’s safely ensconced in a top-secret military installation in an undisclosed location, transported by an experimental technology (known as Source Code) into the recent past, where he briefly takes up residence inside someone else’s body. And each time Stevens fails to identify the bomber (whom, we’re told, has his sights set on a bigger second target), he’s jolted back into the present, only to be quickly redeployed into the past.
If the premise sounds a bit shopworn, it’s because Source Code bears more than a passing resemblance to the cult 1989-1993 television series Quantum Leap, starring Scott Bakula as a physicist who becomes unstuck in time following an experiment gone awry, forever “leaping” from year to year and body to body (a kinship Source Code acknowledges by having Gyllenhaal reprise Bakula’s signature move of looking into a mirror and seeing someone else’s reflection). But if we’re keeping score—a tiresome business—then Source Code owes just as much to Tony Scott’s 2006 Déjà Vu (in which Denzel Washington used a similar form of high-tech time travel to thwart a terror bombing), which itself owed more than a bit to Memento and Groundhog Day and all those other movies whose main characters find themselves trapped in some infernal temporal loop. Then there is Hitchcock, and particularly North by Northwest and The 39 Steps, with their perplexed heroes caught up in something much larger than themselves. So Source Code won’t win any contests for “originality”—perhaps the most abused term in the qualitative analysis of any kind of art, as there are few things more tedious than a novel concept poorly executed, and few more satisfying than a familiar one executed in an unexpected way.
Source Code falls squarely into the latter category. It’s a highly enjoyable science fiction mash-up, courtesy of a filmmaker who’s turning out to be a specialist in the field. Jones’s 2009 debut feature, Moon, similarly recycled odds and ends of 2001, Solaris, and Silent Running into an austere lunar-base two-hander, starring Sam Rockwell and the voice of Kevin Spacey, that was that rare contemporary sci-fi movie more interested in the inner lives of its characters than in high technology. So too is Source Code, which, despite issuing from the pen of a different writer (Ben Ripley), ends up contemplating the same question that beats at the heart of Moon (and much of the best sci-fi): what it truly means to be human. Just as Rockwell’s corporate lackey in Moon began to suspect that he might be but a clone of a bygone version of himself, Gyllenhaal’s Cpt. Stevens struggles to remember how exactly he went from being a decorated helicopter pilot in Afghanistan to a government guinea pig in a dark, dank cell that periodically leaks hydraulic—or some other kind of—fluid. “There’s not a lot we can do from here,” says Stevens’s minder, a no-nonsense fellow Captain (Vera Farmiga) who reports to the Caligari-like doctor (the deliciously hammy Jeffrey Wright) in charge of the experiment. But where exactly is “here” in the first place?
Any movie fueled by such an outlandish premise can only benefit from a sense of humor. It’s what the first Matrix movie had that the sequels lacked, and what has made Paul Verhoeven’s forays into sci-fi and fantasy such a consistent pleasure. Jones, too, has a light touch of the sort that enlivens the material without trivializing it—think of it as tongue delicately navigating the perimeter of cheek. The more Stevens returns to his fated eight minutes, the more Jones gives the scenes the quality of an absurd waking dream in which Stevens knows what everyone around him is going to do before they do it. And Gyllenhaal, who projects the appealing everyman quality of Cary Grant in North by Northwest, is good fun to watch, slowly figuring out the puzzle as he goes along, gaining confidence along the way. Eventually, he even takes time out from saving Chicago to flirt with the young woman (Michelle Monaghan) seated across from him on the train, even though he’s been told that his actions here can’t alter the past, that this woman, like her fellow passengers, is already dead and gone.
Source Code is ultimately a movie of no great importance that won’t linger especially long in the sci-fi firmament (or even in your own mind after you exit the theater), but while it’s up there on the screen it’s a generous entertainment. Although it was surely produced for a great deal more money than the $5 million Moon, Source Code doesn’t have the same visual grandeur as that film (where the widescreen lunar vistas gave the feeling of a miniaturist epic), but it does have the same intimacy with the characters, the same sense that these are real people, speaking intelligently to each other. In short, it has charm, which along with wit is surely the most endangered quality at the movies these days. Which makes Source Code feel like time travel in more respects than one. Hitchcock, I suspect, would be pleased.
Speaking of real human beings, contemporary superhero mythology has always accommodated a number of ordinary people who choose to transform themselves into masked avengers alongside those actual super men (and women) gifted by nature or science with extraordinary powers. But even most of those self-made saviors, from Batman to The Punisher, have existed in a stylized comic-book universe where justice is doled out against nefarious super villains and where the most graphic carnage is neatly omitted from the colored panels. Not so in James Gunn’s anarchic Super, whose bargain-basement crime fighter, The Crimson Bolt, cruises the streets of some downtrodden metropolis (actually Shreveport, LA) in a maroon Buick Century, loiters in back alleys waiting for crime to find him, and beats his opponents to a bloody pulp with a pipe wrench—in one case, for the capital offense of cutting in line outside a movie theater. And when he does, Gunn (who previously directed the scary-funny 2006 creature feature Slither) lingers on the bloody entrails, on the victim writing in agony on the ground. There’s a very good reason Super is being released to theaters unrated: if the MPAA had its way with it, it would be reduced to a short film.
Gunn’s movie is an ingeniously nasty concoction that feeds the cult of superhero fandom back into itself. What, indeed, if an average Joe—or in this case, Frank—were to make himself over into the stuff of pop-culture mythos? How far is it, really, from a Clark Kent to a Travis Bickle? Super isn’t the first movie to ponder such a scenario—it was, to varying extents, the subject of last year’s Kick-Ass and the little-seen 2009 Woody Harrelson vehicle Defendor—but none have gone quite to Gunn’s grisly extremes. Extremity isn’t necessarily a virtue, but in the case of Super it is, because the movie functions as something of a reconditioning experiment for the audience, like the one Alex undergoes in A Clockwork Orange. Gunn wants to blur the line between the innocuous “comic-book violence” of the PG-13 universe and the blood-soaked ultra-violence of crime and horror movies, which is also one of the goals of Christopher Nolan’s two Batman movies, except that Gunn does it under the guise of parody, with a main character who may not be entirely right in the head. He wants us to feel it’s OK to laugh, and then to pull the rug out from under us, to make us catch the laughter in our throats.
When we first meet Frank, he’s a short-order cook in a greasy-spoon diner who claims to have known only two perfect moments in his life (each illustrated by a child-like drawing taped to his bedroom wall): one is his marriage to Sarah (Liv Tyler), a beautiful addict Frank helped on her road to recovery; the other is the (minor) role he once played in helping the police to apprehend a petty thief. Frank is played, just about perfectly, by The Office’s Rainn Wilson, a lanky hangdog whose very name suggests someone who’s been out too long in the storm. With his clothes draped loosely around his gangly frame and his hair matted down, Frank looks like an ill fit for his own body, and he seems on the verge of tears even when he’s supposed to be happy. One glance at him and you sense he could easily come unglued, which is exactly what happens when Sarah leaves him for an oily drug dealer/strip club impresario (Kevin Bacon).
That’s when a despondent Frank receives, or thinks he does, a visit from the Lord—the greatest masked avenger of them all—and wakes up convinced he’s been chosen from on high to become The Crimson Avenger. It’s a scene Gunn stages like a whacked-out, suburban-tract-house version of the destruction of Krypton from the Richard Donner Superman, with the walls of Frank’s bedroom cracking apart and a heavenly light shining down, while slimy purple tentacles hold Frank in place and neatly flip open the top of his skull as though it were a trash can. And throughout Super, Gunn (who hails from a large Irish-Catholic family) makes lively sport out of conflating thedogma of superhero culture with the religious variety, showing how both arise from people’s need to believe in something bigger than themselves, and how Frank, by mistaking the one for the other, comes to feel entirely justified in his actions.
Super reverses the traditional superhero origin story, with Frank first blundering out into the world completely ill-equipped, and only then, after a few ass-kickings, submitting to a rigorous training regimen. The latter comes with help from Libby (Ellen Page), a comic-book salesgirl who feels just as powerless as Frank does, and promptly appoints herself his official sidekick, Boltie. And when Page steps on screen in her own tailor-made superhero costume, she takes the movie up a notch; she’s a wicked little spitfire, so drunk on her newfound impunity that she sets out to take revenge on the guy she thinks keyed her car, and pulverizes him within an inch of his life. This horrifies Frank, whose primary goal is to win back his wife, and it may horrify some in the audience too—and it’s meant to. Gunn is tapping into our own feelings of powerlessness in the world and our own darkest fantasies—the violent rage that may flash through our minds upon being cut off by a driver on the freeway.
Super is about the last movie you expect to suddenly go straight in the home stretch, but in its way it does. Bacon and his entourage of goons never really move beyond the level of cardboard bad guys, so when Frank and Libby team up to foil their big drug score, the movie loses some of its sharp, discomfiting edge. And when Gunn tacks on a sentimental epilogue, you wince for all the wrong reasons. It’s as if having kept Frank, for the first 90 minutes, teetering on a razor’s edge between our sympathy and disgust,between sanity and madness, Gunn feels he has to redeem him in the final five, to make sure we know this has all been for some greater purpose. Such faults are forgivable in a movie that plunges this far into the abyss, but one wishes that Super had the full strength of its convictions—to send us into the night with an acrid taste in our mouths, and blood on our hands.