Sunday, August 14, 2011

Let's Talk About the Ending of "Source Code"

Firstly, a mini-review. If you haven't seen the movie yet, I recommend it. This is a good, no-frills science-fiction thriller, a solid second outing for director Duncan Jones, and features good work from a lot of dependable actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright.

"Source Code" has been out on DVD and readily available via all the usual rental services for a few weeks, so I think it's safe to address the film's ending, which has sparked so much debate and discussion. When I set out to write up a review of the film, I found the only strong opinions I really had were about the ending, so I decided to devote the whole post to it. And now, on to the spoilers.

Many think that "Source Code" should have ended a few minutes before it did, with one particularly striking variation on a freeze-frame shot, which would have let the story conclude on a poignant note. Instead, we got a brief coda that gave the film a much more conventional happy ending, which ended up frustrating many critics and viewers. Many assumed the studio had demanded the last few minutes be added to make the film more palatable, but according to interviews, it was the director who fought for the happier ending while the studio preferred the darker one.

Whose side am I on? First, I don't agree with the assumption that just because "Source Code" dealt with heavy subject matter, and was strongly influenced by films like "Johnny Got His Gun" and "La Jetée," which had unhappy endings, that "Source Code" was also obligated to have one. Duncan Jones' last science-fiction film, "Moon," explores similarly themes but ends on a fairly upbeat note as well, and no one was complaining about it. But that said, I prefer the darker ending, and thought that the coda weakened the rest of the film.

I wasn't bothered by the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal's character got a new life (stolen from someone else, my boyfriend pointed out), won the girl, and cheated certain death. The possibility of alternate branching universes being created by his actions in the "source code" program had been set up earlier in the film, along with some discussion of time travel and causality that foreshadowed the ending. The plot played out in a fairly conventional way that anyone familiar with mainstream science-fiction films could have predicted was coming.

My beef with the ending of "Source Code" comes down to the execution. While I think that Duncan Jones did a fantastic job with the rest of the film, the alternate universe coda came off as pretty ham-handed. It went on for too long, removed any the ambiguity about the hero's fate, and had a distinct feeling of tying up loose ends while also leaving room for a possible sequel. It also pales in comparison to the false ending, which would have left Gyllenhaal's character and all the others on the doomed commuter train frozen forever in a moment of joy and mirth as the source code program was terminated.

I get the sense that the filmmakers only intended the freeze-frame scene on the train to be a fake-out, and perhaps inadvertently created an ending to the film that was better than the one they had in mind. I doubt it was intended for viewers to become so attached to the false resolution to the story that they would reject the events that followed, but that's exactly what happened. In so many reviews and reactions I've read, people were deeply disappointed that the ambiguous, bittersweet finale that they thought they were getting was totally negated by what came after.

My reaction was similar. While I was watching the coda play out, I wondered whether we were going to get a second coda to subvert the first, similar to "Brazil" or last year's "Repo Men." Surely the film wasn't going to end on such a jarringly upbeat note after all the dark, paranoid intensity that had come before, was it? And yet, I think I'm among the few who believes that the ending Jones wanted could have worked, if it had been truncated, if it had been made more ambiguous, or if maybe it had just been crosscut with scenes of what was going on in the universe where the hero and everyone else on the train did die.

I still think Duncan Jones does stellar work and has a lot of potential, but this was a misstep. Moreover, it was a big one. I mean, a lot of films stumble with their endings, but "Source Code" is one of those rare pictures, along with Steven Spielbeg's "A.I." that gave us these bold, moving, powerful endings – and then abandoned them for lesser ones. I liked "Source Code," but I'm afraid I'm always going to remember it for what it could have been and almost was, instead of the movie it is.

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