Source Code – 2011 & Groundhog Day – 1993 (Spoilers)
I first saw Groundhog Day a month ago, and it’s obviously one hell of a movie. It’s almost unfair to compare Source Code directly with it, and also does a disservice to the more modest aims of the latter picture; so while this isn’t a review, let it be said that Source Code is a good flick.
Source Code has to share the spotlight with a king here because their central device, reliving the same moment over and over, is so similar. In both films, the hero heads through many iterations of the same time sequence, which consistently resets to the same starting point, retaining only what he’s learned from his previous trips.
It’s that last bit that makes for all the fun: the heroes grow while the world around them stays the same. And their growth doesn’t come about in the typical linear fashion we expect from narrative fiction — from events, or irrevocable moral decisions, or compromises with unclear outcomes, or confronting new situations. It’s just what they can learn — both about the people around them, and about how to view their role in life and community.
Before arriving at the beautiful places these two films wind up, though, it’s worth pointing out four differences.
One, Phil Connors in Groundhog Day doesn’t have any defined “someone” putting him through the loop for a specific reason; the interpretation of his experience is up to him and, more importantly, the viewer. In Source Code, it’s very clear, and an increasingly vital part of the plot, who is doing this to Colter Stevens; and further, while there are some conflicts between his aims and those of his commanders, the intended purpose for why he’s on the train is also spelled out.
Second, Phil Connors remains Phil Connors; Colter Stevens takes over the appearance, existence, and, most crucially, the prior relationships of, Sean Fentress.
Third, in keeping with the different pitch to the two, Groundhog Day takes place during a full day, which is Phil’s to explore; Source Code in all but one case has an eight minute loop.
Fourth, and related to this last point, while Phil goes through some very large number of loops — at least many years, by most estimates — Source Code has a maximum of a couple dozen trips through. (Though it does indicate in a very interesting way toward its close that Colter will go through (or perhaps has gone through) this process over and over, with the implication that one out of every two dozen or so will be able to live happily. Nonetheless, we don’t see the Colter in this film experience them.)
There are of course some other minor differences — Source Code spells out some of the metaphysical & physical fall-out of the exercise, including alternate universes with beings that have an equal claim to legitimacy, while Groundhog Day is hermeneutically sealed — but in all the ways that matter, that’s what differs between the two. Which makes for a whole lot of similarity wonderfully left over.
That shared DNA extends beyond the device to the basic structure of the films: the hero becomes stuck in the loop, bangs his head against the wall, keeps being sent through, and finally reaches inner peace with their predicament and some mastery of their outer circumstances. To their surprise, after that final, perfect run through the sequence, they are able to continue out of their prison.
The ending for both films is handled particularly well, and given the differences in their approaches it’s also heartening, and somewhat surprising, to see how seamlessly they both align the small differences in detail to ring true with their respective conclusions.
In Source Code, the fact that Colter has taken over Fentress’ existence should in many ways be more troubling than it is. But his knowledge of why he is there, the assignment of responsibility for his predicament to a particular set of kind-of-bad-guys, and the fact that he not only has to be there but can only be there — he’s dead outside of this time-pocket — erases most of that unease. The relatively short size of his sequence, too, as well as the limited number of trips he makes, limits his ability to achieve the near-perfect information Phil gains about the town and the lives of those around him. In short, the film makes every effort to place him in a situation where there’s no hint of a karmic debt he owes and where what he can really achieve is limited to one main task. His existence of running through the loop is confined, constrained, and focused. Rather than respond to this with the kind of effortful, meticulous mastery of his surroundings that Phil achieves, Colter does the best he can with what he’s got: in his final, and only, eight minutes, he simply sets about being as awesome as he can. He disarms the bomb, he relaxes the entire train car on a tough day, and he shares an absolutely gangbusters kiss with a woman who’d like nothing more than that. It’s not the best anyone has ever done at anything, but damned if he doesn’t kick the fucking hell out of those eight minutes.
When I say that he decides to be awesome, however, I mean that; it’s clearly a decision, a switch flipping on that this is game time. It’s one of the less interesting aspects of the film that the build to that is more emotional than logical; he gives himself over in those final minutes to his natural instincts and charisma, along with what he’s been able to learn. Phil’s process in Groundhog Day — again, and perhaps even more, in line with the particular approach of the film — is far different. His canvass is a vast one: he has a full day, he gets to live it for many years, and he’s correspondingly capable of interacting with, and achieving, a far wider range of activities. Certainly there’s no bomb hidden in the groundhog, so he can’t achieve anything so cool as to save hundreds of lives and the American way, but he can make many, many people’s lives better, he can learn much more, he can play with a wider range of potential tools — in short, his resources of time and information make him immensely powerful. While in response to this Phil bitches, moans, dicks around, and gets lost down many rabbit holes along the way, as we all would, he eventually is able to build upon, cascade, and coalesce all of the things that he now has time for into something beautifully, impossibly, over-the-top perfect: something close to the best day anyone has ever lived. In achieving this he’s operating on a far higher degree of difficulty than Colter, too, because he has now predetermined mission to shape how he will spend his time, and he also has to contend with a negative starting impression, rather than a positive predisposition, from the apple of his eye. Yet he pulls it all off, and you get the sense that the pilot would be as proud of the broadcaster’s day as Phil would be of Colter’s magnificent finish.
They’re kindred spirits in that way: it all comes down to the circumstances they’re handed, and while neither articulates it quite this way, they both reach the conclusion that they should be as kind and awesome as they possibly can. And they manage to be so awesome that it sets the whole world right again — and, what the heck, they even get the girl.
With Source Code, we get a smart sci-film that leaps a bound ahead of today’s mainstream. With Groundhog Day, we get something like scripture to take down off the DVD shelf. Whether riffing on their approach or employing something else, more movies should find such clear, precise ways to depict such beautiful ideas about how we’re meant to live in the world we’re in.