Two very different new releases this week; one a highly recommended sci-fi action drama, the other an ill-conceived and entirely unnecessary peek into the juvenile mind of Zack Snyder, the man currently entrusted with reviving the Superman franchise (shudder). Listen to hear my verdicts, and I've also posted my notes on the films here if you'd prefer to read than listen!
Army captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in the body of an unknown man and discovers he's part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train.North by Northwest-inspired credits sequence – skyscrapers, train running through town, music is basically an update of Bernard Hermann’s score. The way scenario initially plays out – picking up details of characters, camera moving around everyone, sense of something not right – it all evokes Hitch in a very compelling way.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is how well Duncan Jones handles the unfolding of the story. He, and Ben Ripley, writer, keep the audience interested by gradually revealing more about the truth of Stevens’ predicament, while also ensuring that the repeating scenario develops every time you see it again – you’re not looking at your watch. The question of what is real/simulated/imagined is well-maintained, and ultimately answered.
Gyllenhaal has a lot of info to convey through dialogue, but makes it work. When the necessary ‘what is Source Code?’ moment comes it is well-handled.
Like the best sci-fi (including Jones' previous Moon) Source Code uses its far-fetched scenario to focus on very human themes; there is depth, and sadness, to Gyllenhaal’s performance, and by the film’s end some audience members will be reflecting on the value of life – it’s moving stuff, but at the same time, lots of fun.
Gyllenhaal is excellent, holds the film together perfectly and carries the emotional stuff particularly well. He’s funny and likeable, and very easy to care about. Michelle Monaghan does a great job in a very limited character range – she is basically replaying the same 8 minutes over and over, but still convinces us why Stevens would feel so strongly towards her. Vera Farmiga is the other great performance – unravelling of her professional exterior as she connects with Stevens – also adds to the heart of the film. Jeffrey Wright is the odd one out – weird accent and a bit pantomimey.
Comparison with Christopher Nolan
I can definitely see Jones stepping up to the level of Nolan. He has a similar ability to make big ideas really compelling, mixed with exciting storytelling, but he has more heart: this is big-hearted sci-fi, with big concepts, thoughtfully played out.
Not sure I needed very end – tries to tie things up too much and in so doing upsets the balance of ‘levels of reality’ that had been quite well held. Not a big issue though, the strength of emotion carries the story.
A young girl (Emily Browning) is institutionalized by her abusive stepfather. Retreating to an alternative reality as a coping strategy, she envisions a plan which will help her escape from the mental facility.
Zack Snyder’s previous live-action films Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen have all been good in part – visually amazing and well-directed action for sure, but lacking subtlety entirely, and based in a comic-book understanding of reality: everything grossly exaggerated and simplified. Sucker Punch basically sees him giving free reign to all his worst tendencies as a director. Whereas he has previously worked from someone else’s story, so in a way he’s been reigned in, this is his own story, and as such he’s let his mind go completely.
The result is like a parody of empty postmodern storytelling at its most ridiculously extreme. Like those Youtube mash-ups where someone cuts bits of Lord of the Rings into The Matrix for example, except feature length, and utterly meaningless. Incorporating LOTR, World War I movies, Chicago, I, Robot, Batman Begins, the list goes on. All populated by girls in sexy underwear, with big guns. And Nazi robots.
The depiction of the women is demeaning and close to pornographic in sensibility. Baby Doll is offered as this ‘ultimate male fantasy’ character, basically because she looks, and is dressed, much younger than her 20 years; and the other girls celebrate the fact that she can transfix men with her jaw-dropping erotic dancing. This is as far from empowering as is possible on film. These women are completely subjugated to a male gaze, and they act as if that is unavoidable.
Aside from the offensive sexism (and Snyder’s obvious self-loathing: every male character is a grotesque lech), the other main problem is the film makes no sense. It might have worked as a musical – it has the kind of illogical set-up with jumps in logic that works best as a musical. The ‘quest’ element is clunkily set up and feels like a computer game scenario. Dialogue is laughably awful – Showgirls-type scenes with girls trussed up in lingerie attempting to have serious conversations.
After getting My Chemical Romance to desecrate Dylan’s Desolation Row for Watchmen, here everyone from The Beatles to Queen to The Pixies has their best songs destroyed in asinine soulless airbrushed covers on the ‘slabs-of-meathead-metal’ soundtrack.
Ending has the gall to suggest that this was a story of personal empowerment all along – what a load of rubbish. Avoid, and hope that Snyder has some kind of mental growth spurt before shooting his Superman remake.
Source Code and Sucker Punch are in cinemas from Friday 1st April.