Things I Learned From… Source Code

Some pretty serious spoilers if you haven’t seen the film – but really, if you haven’t, why the hell not?

So, watched Source Code again last night, with a writer friend who hadn’t seen it before, and was reminded what a perfectly formed, ingenious and moving little story it is.

Had the traditional argument about whether the film ends in the right place.  To my mind, they have a perfect ending, and they ramble straight past it.  In my version, the clock ticks to zero, the train freeze-frames, Goodwin throws the switch and is arrested, cut to the train where Colter and Christina are frozen in that kiss… and we’re out.  Did he get to live on in an alternate universe?  We’ll never know.  But he saved everyone and repaired his relationship with his dad (at least in his own mind) and found peace, so we feel emotionally fulfilled and satisfied anyway.

(I spend a lot of time complaining about films ending in the wrong place, don’t I?  I should probably seek help for that…)

But actually, what I noticed last night was a small but interesting decision about the use of space.

Contained thrillers – plot-driven stories where the characters are placed in peril in a confined space –  are hardly a new idea, but they’ve been big sellers over the last few years.

Source Code itself probably benefited from this trend: it was a spec script which topped the annual Black List  (of the best as-yet-unproduced scripts in circulation) and promptly sold, giving a huge boost to Ben Ripley’s career.

The big problem with the contained thriller is managing space.  I’m writing one myself, and moving characters around to get people where you need them, or out of the way when you don’t, is a nightmare!  So, given that you don’t have many locations to start with, how can you use them to help your audience follow the plot?

Whether by accident or design, Ripley has made things a little easier for himself by cutting between two contained locations with different sets of characters, with Colter’s “capsule” as a third location which provides visual contrast (it’s small, dark, falling apart, and Colter’s alone there).

But the thing that really interests me is the way Ripley, and director Duncan Jones, associate certain parts of the train with different elements of the plot.

All the scenes that investigate Colter’s growing relationship with Christina take place in the lower deck of the carriage.  This is the ‘everyday’ space, where people talk to fellow commuters, work on their laptops, prepare for exams – and in this case, fall in love.

The bathroom – for obvious reasons, perhaps – is associated with the bomb, and thus the fate of the passengers on this train.  The first person Colter suspects falls under suspicion because he’s seen leaving the bathroom.

The door area of the train, and the suburban station where the train stops before the explosion, are associated with preventing the next bomb going off.  We barely see Derek on the train – only getting off, and around the station.  The van with the bomb in is parked in the lot there.  The door area is where Colter is restrained after being tasered, and where he eventually handcuffs Derek to await arrest.

And the upper level of the train is associated with the truth about Beleaguered Castle, Colter’s death, and his father.  It’s where he is when Christina comes to tell him that his ‘friend’ Captain Stevens is dead.  It’s where he goes to make the phone call to his father at the end.  It’s the ‘spiritual’ space of the story, where characters experience revelations and make peace with one another.

(Okay, the guard’s room, which Colter breaks into to steal the gun, is on the upper level.  Slight flaw in my theory.  But anyway…)

At least the first time through, we’re entirely unaware of this very precise use of locations when watching the movie.  But I wonder to what extent we’re subconsciously tracking that, and being helped to follow the fairly complex story by it?

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