So I knew I had this nice modest sci-fi movie to see upon my return from my Amsterdam vacation, which was a nice way to assuage my overall depression at having to be back in this country where public services are all-round shoddy and everyone is vaguely pissed off. Which is not even to mention the food.
This is by Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie who won favor with his modest little sci-fi film about identity and stuff, Moon. This one has a lot of thematic similarity, in terms of questioning identity and reality, as well as just concentrating on a man trapped in a small, impersonal environment. And it is just offbeat and generally weird enough to remain intriguing and charming.
So we have these shots of Chicago and a commuter train under the credits. We then join Jake Gyllenhaal as Colter [what, he's a gay porn star?], waking up on that train. Across from him sits Michelle Monaghan as Christina. They banter, a few incidental things happen, and Colter sees that he looks like someone else in the mirror. Then the train explodes. Colter wakes in a small capsule with Vera Farmiga as Goodwin on a screen. She tells him that he has to go back to the train, where he'll have eight minutes to find the bomb and the bomber. And if he doesn't, he'll go back again, and again, and again until he does.
We soon learn that the explosion happened that morning--in real time--and that it is to be just the first of a series of attacks on Chicago that day, the rest of which will be much deadlier. Colter finding the bomber on the train can prevent the later bombings--which is good, because otherwise there would be no sense of urgency to the movie. If Colter can just go back any number of times until he gets it right, who cares? He also finds out that the people on the train, including that charming Christina, are already dead, so his saving them while going back won't actually make a difference. He also has to begin wondering who HE is, since the last thing he remembers is being on tour in Afghanistan, and now suddenly he's here as this other guy trying to save this train.
SPOILERS > > >
Soon it is revealed that what he's going back in is not actually time, but just in his memory. And he soon intuits that he is actually dead--but not really, he's a vegetable with part of his brain still active, which the military has consigned to running this mission for them.
< < < SPOILERS END
But again, this is the problem the movie faces--if these characters are already lost, why are we supposed to get involved in their fate? Which results in the weird, off-kilter shape of the film, which by necessity can't really develop all that far. Farmiga and Jeffery Wright are good in their military roles [Farmiga in particular brings a lot of sympathy to her relatively undeveloped role], but their whole part is in many ways inconsequential and superfluous to the story. So is Monaghan as Christina, charming as ever, but a role that repeats the same eight minutes over and over is necessarily short on development. As is the entire movie--if it just keeps jumping back, it's difficult for the film to sustain any feeling of going forward. Its attempts to do so become the main source of interest--how is it going to get past this challenge it has set for itself?
The movie resolves with a happy ending that really makes no sense within the parameters it has set for itself, but by this time we just know that all movies have to have happy endings.
So ultimately kind of an interesting mess, but one that is so narratively ungainly that in a way you start to root for it. You’re sitting there wondering how they’re going to move the story forward and develop any stakes because the narrative just keeps looping back, so when they take a step in this regard one kind of applauds it. And it’s just so generally unusual and has so many disparate elements that don’t quite work but remain interesting that it becomes somewhat charming. It also helps that the actors are all very good, including Gyllenhaal at the center, bringing little notes into his performance that help bring the movie together, even when its many elements are pulling it in different directions.
Was it that great? No. Do you need to see it? Not really. But if you like somewhat intriguing science fiction with a somewhat interesting premise and execution, this one makes a lot of its strength—which is in not being pounded into a perfectly acceptable, all-hairs-smoothed-down thing, and allowing itself to be just a little bit odd and charmingly ungainly.
If you like this kind of tepid science fiction.