Source Code: Was that a Metra train or a bad dream?

on Friday, April 22, 2011

By Angela Pusztai-Pasternak and Matt Van Hattem

(Trains’ entertainment critics at large)

 Angela: Decisions, decisions … should I see “Sucker Punch” or “Source Code?” And must I really look at trains during my free time?

I try to avoid watching movies and TV shows featuring trains, but alas the trains always seem to appear, whether I like it or not.

So, I broke my rule, wanting to get the most for my money, and saw “Source Code” on opening night.

Filmed on Chicago’s Metra, the movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier who must relive the same 8 minutes until he finds a bomb placed on a morning commuter train, and uncovers the identity of the bomber.
I nestled into my posh seat clutching a latte, waiting for the movie to begin on the Ultra Screen. My 9:45 p.m. show time had only a half-full theater. Curious. However, the movie made $15.1 million its opening weekend (while the animated feature, “Hop,” released the same weekend, made $38.1 million in ticket sales, the highest grossing movie for an opening weekend so far this year. Must have been the lucky rabbit’s foot?)

So, Matt, did you have your customary Starbucks in hand, when you saw “Source Code?”

Matt: No Starbucks that night, sorry to say. But I seriously craved a cup of coffee once I saw the movie’s fictitious “Chicago Commuter Rail” train, which had a Duncan Donuts counter on board. (I wonder how much they paid for product placement?)
Real commuter trains are a bit more utilitarian. (If there had been a coffee stand on my commuter train back in New York, I would’ve stayed on board all day.) And those push-button bathroom doors are more space-age than real-life.

So yes, while you do see a real Metra train for many of the establishing shots, all of the interior scenes, not to mention the suburban “Glenbrook” train station, were made-up sets — a commuter train fantasy world.
Here’s what I can’t decide: Is “Source Code” a “train movie” (like “Unstoppable”) or just a movie with train scenes (like “The Fugitive” or “North by Northwest”)? What do you think?

Angela: Well, I haven’t seen “Unstoppable,” but it’s on my Netflix list. Nonetheless, I can answer your question. It must not be a train movie because I paid money to see it! Ha, ha!

Seriously, though, I think it’s a movie with train scenes. The train was not a character in the movie, but more a vehicle (pun intended) to drive the plot. When his commanding officers repeatedly send him back in time to find the bomber, Gyllenhaal’s character exists in an alternate reality, like in the TV show “Fringe.”

I did enjoy the aerial views of the train at the beginning of the movie. I wish the filmmakers would have shown more of those.
As far as action goes, the movie provides intensity. Although, I found the parts where the train explodes to have less impact than when Gyllenhaal gets struck by the train in one scene, and jumps from the moving train in another. I literally winced both times. The bomb going off did not move me.

I think “Source Code” is short on mystery, too. The camera shows the viewer who the bomber is long before Gyllenhaal’s character figures it out. I actually found that kind of annoying.

Did you notice anything that wasn’t quite right?

Matt: Gee, when the whole idea of a movie is to repeat the same 8 minutes over and over and alter history, it’s hard to know what’s right or wrong.

But as far as the trains go, I think Source Code hits as often as it misses.

Regular train riders and fans will probably shake their heads when they see things like the train crew’s stashed-away handgun, or the giant ventilation area above the restroom — not to mention what appears to be a dome car in the consist of a commuter train.
Like you, I loved the aerial shots of the Metra train, and I recognized most of the locations as being along the Rock Island District. So it was weird to see car interiors with Union Station destination signs (since Rock Island trains go into La Salle Street) or watch the train pull into Millennium Park station at the end of the run (again, wrong terminal).
You’re right, the exterior shots of the train explosion looked unrealistic (replete with a muddy-looking CGI-created tank car train running on tracks where long freight trains don’t run). But I thought the interior explosion scenes were chilling.
Here’s what I did like. They got the operation right — the railroad car set resembled a real Gallery car, with the open aisle two stories high. The movie also made sure to have a cab car leading the Chicago-bound morning train. And when Gyllenhaal’s character gets hit by an outbound train, he gets hit by the locomotive.
One improvement: I’ll take Hollywood’s clear train windows over the green tints in Metra’s real windows.
And I liked the idea of setting a movie about reliving the same day over and over on a commuter train.

Daily commuters really are in a time loop of sorts. You take the same train every morning. By habit, you tend to sit in the same area. You see the same people, who in one sense are total strangers but in another become familiar just by being in this same little world with you every day. Some people you might even get to know.

So Angela, have you decided what you would do if you had just 8 minutes to relive over and over?

Angela: How funny you are, Matt. Let’s just say, I hope I’m not on a train with Jake Gyllenhaal. Ahem, getting back to the movie.
Director Duncan Jones (musician David Bowie’s son) made one film before this, 2009’s “Moon.” Both “Source Code” and “Moon” show a main character initially confused by his circumstances, but charged with a mission to save the world, so to speak. In “Moon,” the main character is on a three-year stint in space to gather a resource only available on the moon to solve the energy crisis on Earth. “Moon” had a more artsy feel than “Source Code,” though “Source Code” was a big-budget Hollywood thriller, whereas “Moon” had about $5 million to play with. However, I think “Moon” was the better movie.
I’ll wait to see “Sucker Punch” on DVD, so seeing “Source Code” in the theater was the right decision. It’s a decent action thriller, despite its inaccurate portrayal of commuting in Chicago.

Matt: Somewhere, Jake Gyllenhaal is crying right now.

Whether “Source Code” succeeds or not as a movie, there’s no question that after years of being virtually ignored in film, trains have come back into filmmaking in a big way. And I like that trend.
What did the rest of you think? Leave a comment below.

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