Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nitpickery --- Robo Cop versus Source Code

Hey y'all.

So last night I watched Source Code with my boyfriend, and you know what?  I like the movie.  Too many movies these days just go for the lowest common denominator, for the cheapest laugh and the simplest themes.  It's a disease of modern movies, and very few movies are free from modernity.  Unfortunately, this one isn't completely free, but yet it shines through and stands out as a really entertaining movie.

One thing I did before seeing the movie was watch Robo Cop, and I've noticed a parallel between both.  I'm really going to have to be spoilerific to explain why I see this parallel.  I'm going to do a straight, non-spoiler review of Source Code first, then get into Robo Cop and how they compare.  I'll warn you before I do this, so if you don't want Source Code spoiled then don't read it.  Honestly, Source Code is not a movie that should be spoiled.  I highly recommend not reading the second half of this blog if you haven't seen it.

So, spoiler free.  Source Code is an entertaining movie about a guy who is sent back...not in time, per say, but sent into the last eight minutes of one of the lives of a train bombing victim.  He has to figure out who bombed the train so that it won't happen again.  This is a great premise well executed, with a great cast.  I'm not really a Gyllenhaal fan, but he did a great job in this role.  I believed him in this role.

The character I had trouble believing in was a side character, the secondary antagonist Dr Rutledge.  He's one of these guys that's in charge of sending Gyllenhaal's character back, and he just comes across as an extremely fake stereotype.  He's selfish in a completely two dimensional way.  Writer people, be aware: evil people have hearts, their hearts are just demented, twisted, self-righteous, or entirely centered around themselves.  There is no one that exists that does not have a heart.

I'm honestly not sure if it's the actor Jeffrey Wright to blame or the writers, but either way it's like watching a....well, I was going to say a cartoon, but cartoon villains are more believable.  This guy's greed and iron-fisted control of the organization is ineloquent, and if he were a real person nobody would genuinely trust him. It's too easy to see how much of a jerk he is, and thus no one in his organization, or in the audience of this movie, has any reason to trust him or believe in his two-faced platitudes.

Alright, I love nitpicking, but let's talk about some good stuff.  I love the structure of this movie, how they can make it very interesting even though it's partially the same thing over and over again.  Watching Jake's character Colter figure out where the bomb is and who the bomber is feels very wonderful and natural.  It's heavy on the melodrama, but as the movie continues, the melodrama starts to really work.  I totally dig the ending, which is perfectly satisfying with just a hint of unsettled issues.  But you know what?  Unsettled issues are okay.  Storytelling is all about answering certain questions and leaving others up in the air, and this movie knows which is which.

However, I do have to call them out, because I guessed the bad guy within the first twenty minutes, and I figured out most of the ending well before the end.  Maybe I should just let that go, because it really didn't hamper my enjoyment of this movie.  I was totally crying in the theater near the end.  It's very emotional, and you'll really like it if you let yourself.

I found the character of Christina, played by Michelle Monaghan, to be slightly cheesy (what in the world makes India such a dang good place to find yourself?  You're more likely to get lost in their religiousity), but she's a very heartfelt character, and she does the job well of being a somewhat down on her luck sweetheart that you do not want to die in the train explosion.

I can't really talk much about the villain without spoiling anything, but he does a very good job and you can feel his emotions with sickening clarity.  Crafty, crafty job.

So, some complaints about this film is that I feel like a lot of the neutral victims on the bus are trying too hard to be normal people.  They're trying to hard to be the cranky businessman, the snarky comedian, the college student, etc.  It's like they're trying to play specific roles on the train rather than just be natural.  It's not a big deal, but it's a thing that irritates me in movies.

Also, the chick that works with Colter, Goodwin, feels a lot like a stereotype.  Not a life stereotype, but one in the movies.  Again, I can't get spoilerific, but her morals are very movie-ish, the kind that Hollywood types want to shove down your throat and accuse you of being a soulless jerk if you don't agree with.  This is the modernity I was talking about.  Goodwin combined with Jeffery Wright's character make up simplistic agents of a theme that's in a lot of movies, but isn't too overly presented in this one to the point that it ruins the movie.

That theme is self preservation over self sacrifice.  You may have noticed this in other works, like that one Bruce Willis was in with these people that told the future, or that one episode of Voyager where a child used to bring a virus to the Borg is told that it's okay to not forgive your parents for putting you in that situation.

I'm not going to go on about this yet.  Just to sum it up, Source Code is a great movie with a great plot structure and pretty good writing.  It understands human emotion very well, and has created a good scientific background without trying to cram two tons worth of data and technobabble into the mix.  You will enjoy this movie.

Best actor: Jake Gyllenhaal.  He carries this movie to an excellent extent, making it very believable.  You feel his emotions and want him to do well, which is exactly what a movie should do.

Score: 7/10.

People who should watch this:
Movie cynics
Science fiction fans
Thriller fans
People who want dramatics and emotion.

Okay!  I'm going to go into Robo Cop now, and I have to warn you, by comparing these movies I will be spoiling both, though I'm sure you're more worried about Source Code spoiling.

Seriously!  If you haven't seen it, don't read on!

I warned you!

Does anyone actually pay attention to spoiler alerts?


Robo Cop came out in 1987, and it is a far, far darker movie.  The violence is more explosive (figuratively and literally), and there are about four sympathetic characters in the entire movie of cynical, bitter, and villainous characters.  I honestly sort of love that about this movie, because when an audience is confronted with this kind of evil, a lot of the times their natural reaction is to try and resist it with inner beauty and light.  Or they just sympathize with the bitter view and follow along with the story more deeply.

The story goes that cop Alex Murphy is killed, and his body is taken by OCP, the corporation that bought the police, and is used to become RoboCop, the new law enforcement officer that is stronger and better.  The story follows along his path to recovering his memories of the past, and not only stopping the evil man that murdered him (played extremely well by Kurtwood Smith), but also stopping the OCP man that controls him.

This OCP man is Dick Jones, and he's a corporate number 2 that really wants his own robot law enforcement robot to work.  Sadly, his invention is ineloquent, violent, and shot an innocent coworker.  Thus the guy in charge of the Robo Cop program wins the attentions of their boss, one of the sympathetic figures.

This movie is bitter.  Bitter like a Turkish coffee sans any form of sugar or cream.  It's cynical.  The news is all about war and death, the popular television show is about a creepy old guy surrounded by brainless hot women ("I'd buy that for a dollar!"), and Chicago is full of crime and gangsters.  The only form of innocence in this movie is the love shown in Alex's brief memories of his past life.  This film is artfully shot, and very much a dark eighties film.

Here's where the comparisons and contrasts come up.  Source Code isn't at all dark.  It's grim at points, but it has the view that life is grand and is to be enjoyed.  It tells you to escape darkness. Robo Cop's view is that the whole world is dark and violent, but the ending of it makes it very clear: there is hope, and we can fight to make this world what we want it to be, if we find the right people to trust (Robo Cop versus ED-209, Dick Jones versus his caring boss, Ordinary cops versus Robo Cop's creator).

The main reason I wanted to compare the two, besides having watched both yesterday, was that they both deal with the theme of self-sacrifice.  Jake's Colter (here we go spoiler) is actually a soldier who died in Afganistan.  The entire reason why he can work with the source code that enables him to see the last remaining essence of those that died on the train is because there's only a smaller portion of his brain still alive, as well as an assortment of organs.  He gave up having a relationship with his father to go on his last deployment, because he loved his unit and wanted to help them win.

Alex Murphy gave up his past life, including his loving wife and adorable son.  He barely remembers them even at the end of the movie, and it's heart wrenching to see.  The main difference between these two characters is this: RC had no choice but to become a cyborg, but in the end he gave in and decided to become the best cop he could.  He genuinely wanted to help people, and he must have understood that it was too late to save his old life.

Colter, on the other hand, doesn't come to this point.  We never find out if his choice was willing or not (it probably wasn't, but we don't know for sure -- the guy was heroic), but he instead wants to die rather than go on working for the source code projects.   He has to be convinced to save the people on the train (apparently this is the first time the whole idea of going back was really invented), and even then he wants his life support cut off after he's finished.  He spends a lot of his eight minute shifts on the train looking after his own life and trying to figure out what happened to him rather than helping them find the terrorist.

Now, they want you to sympathize with him, and I honestly do.  I'm just irked at the self-centeredness of it all.  Maybe it's because I'm raised on things like Robo Cop and The Chronicles of Narnia (the books, not the stupid movies), but it seems strange to me that his first concern isn't the innocent people that could die if the bomber isn't found.  The characters around him, like Goodwin and Rutledge, are engineered to make the theme say it's right for him to want to die and escape the life of a source code worker.

I personally feel like it is indeed Colter's choice to live as a source code jumper or not.  The people should have been very honest and clear with him about what happened to him and what his life would be like in the program before the whole train situation happened.  My thing is, I really miss the days when people would say, "well, this sucks for me, but since I can help a lot of people now, I'm all for it".  Movies don't just take from culture, they give into it, filling it with themes and making people look at things a specific way.

What people seem to forget is that movies aren't real.  They claim to remember this, but when you ask them about self-sacrifice, they'll point to this movie and refer to Colter's specific situation as proof of their point, even though this never happened and probably never will.  They also use fictional Christians as the foundation for the belief that all Christians suck, but that's a story for another day.

Yes, the dude in charge was a jerk and nobody was honest with Colter, but there's still a point in everyone's life where they've got to realize this: the secret of life is everyone else.  If you want to be a good singer, you have to make songs that people identify with, not self-serving bullcrap that only ends up making sure modern pop music stays dead (I'm lookin' at you, Gaga).  If you want to write a good story, you have to write toward people's hearts and/or minds.  Other people make your work a bestseller, not yourself.  Heroes are people that save others, not themselves.  All I want is for Hollywood to remember this, and that seeking the best end for yourself is not the goal.

Yeah, Source Code ends with Colter becoming the man he's been pretending to be on the train, and depending on how you look at it (this movie never clarifies, which it shouldn't) he either stopped the train bombing from ever happening or he's living in an alternate universe where he stopped it from happening.  In a way it's a satisfying ending, but for that theme.

At the end of the day, I think I like this movie because it's not violent like Robo Cop, and it's not bitter.  However, Robo Cop is a better movie because it has better themes, artful cinematography, and more realistic characterization.  At least it's better in a sense of art.  If you just want a more relaxing and less violent film, Source Code is the way to go.  Still, watching either one is a good time.

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