Over the weekend I saw a matinee showing of Source Code, the new thriller from Moon director (and progeny of my beloved David Bowie) Duncan Jones. The slick, formulaic trailer for the film wouldn’t have been enough to persuade me to see it, but I’m interviewing the score’s composer and looked at it as a research assignment. It helped to see mostly positive reviews cropping up on opening day.
Source Code is a modern thriller with a sci-fi premise. It toys with the long-fascinating ideas of time travel, alternate realities, and inhabiting another person’s body—with some satisfying twists and turns. I quite enjoyed the film overall, despite a few (minor) casting missteps and a spoonfed monologue about how the premise’s technology worked.
As the end credits rolled, an older gentleman turned to look at the middle-aged couple behind him. With a pained, quizzical look on his face, he asked the couple if they could explain it to him. They laughed and voiced confusion, and the older man said in exasperation, “I hate these kinds of movies!” As the couple was exiting, they looked back at me (still sitting and intently listening to the end credits music) and asked me if I “got it.” I mumbled something about it being a “real brain teaser,” but in my head I was thinking, You don’t have to get it to enjoy it, people!
Now, I may be totally inconsistent when it comes to judging a film’s science and internal logic, and I have probably lambasted movies in the past for some plot element or device that betrayed my suspension of disbelief. But watching Source Code (and Inception, the last film I remember watching that tested this idea), I realized that I am completely willing to take an enormous technological or scientific leap of faith—and sacrifice a few explanatory “answers”—if the story arch and characters are satisfyingly executed.
To me it’s all about the yarn. Sci-fi movies, in particular, rely on fantastic premises that break currently known laws of physics. If a movie owns up to this sci-fi element (in other words, if it doesn’t pretend to be an utterly plausible premise and then break all plausible laws), I give it plenty of leeway with how convoluted or confusing the quantum physics and technobabble are—so long as the science facilitates a good yarn.
If a wild leap of faith props up the yarn, I’ll make the jump. I need to understand just enough of the science talk to grasp how it’s relevant to the story. I don’t need to exit the theater able to explain how everything worked the way it did or why. I left Inception emotionally charged and moved, like my heart and mind had just gone on a thrill ride. I cared about the characters and loved the music and willingly got sucked into dreams within dreams. I left Source Code emotionally charged, heart rate still pulsing, and inspired to go save some lives.
It can be fun for me to try and answer all the riddles presented by a film, but it isn’t necessary. Story trumps science every time. And as long as the science doesn’t trip up the story or attempt to be the story itself, I can typically accept it. Yes, I could even accept the Starship Enterprise traveling back in time via warp-driving a slingshot trajectory around the sun—if Star Trek IV’s hybrid “Save the Whales” PSA / wacky “whale out of water” story wasn’t so insultingly stupid.