Source Code is a film which wants to make you think, but not overthink. The film shares many things in common with Moon, the previous film of director Duncan Jones (whose two-part interview with Flixist you can read here and here), one of them being a dedication to reviving the more philosophical side of sci-fi which has gone neglected in recent years in favour of pushing the genre’s easy marriage to large scale action. In order to reach those depths though, the film comes packaged with only a small variation on a well-recycled premise and bearing so many plotholes that rather than bothering to come up with an explanation, one character instead employs that most perfect of get-out clauses: “It’s complicated.”
If you’re willing to go along with what the film is trying to do though, there’s plenty to enjoy. Jones builds on the potential he showed with Moon and hints at building an auteur identity of his own. He draws affecting performances from his cast, a selection of actors all talented enough to hold the film on their own but far enough outside the mainstream not to break the illusion. Though you may feel that you’ve visited Source Code‘s story before, it’s the small differences that make this return trip worthwhile.
Like Moon, Source Code takes place in a small number of enclosed locations. Both films share a similar claustrophobia, although where Sam Rockwell’s astronaut was isolated on a grungy moon station, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Colter Stevens is trapped in time, forced to repeatedly take over the mind of a commuter on a train destined to blow up in approximately eight minutes. In between these jumps back to the past, he finds himself trapped in a small capsule with no apparent means of escape without completing the instructions of the military officers on a screen in front of him and holding hostage information vital to his wellbeing and sanity. In the first reality, the same eight minutes are replayed for Stevens on a constant loop, albeit with minor but noticeable differences. In the second, he seems to have been extracted from time altogether.
Coming off the back of the critically reviled Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (which I quite enjoyed, for the record), Gyllenhaal reminds us of his versatility by bringing depth to a character written with the same blandness as many audience surrogates. The film affords him the well-trodden and underwritten conflict between a son and a father who never really knew each other, and hints at Stevens’ ongoing mental strain at dying over and over again, but Gyllenhaal makes these something greater than quickly discarded character notes. He identifies the character’s sense of dislocation and uses it to colour his performance in each scene: Stevens’ primary goal early on is to work out what’s going on and where he really is, layering that confusion over his military sense of discipline and dedication. By the middle of the film, when the logistics of what he’s involved with have him in a corner, that confusion has turned to severe anxiety. By the time he has acquired a fuller picture of the situation, he is rushing to not only solve the mystery and potentially save thousands of lives, but also execute a plan of action that could set him free. Gyllenhaal makes these transitions between the character’s states of mind fluid and natural, restraining them to gentle retouches rather than broad strokes.
Though it’s Gyllenhaal’s show, the supporting cast also do excellent work in limited roles. Vera Farmiga has little to do other than deliver exposition and keep the plot ticking, but gives her character Goodwin a believeable empathy that could have appeared trite in the hands of a less skilled actress. Jeffrey Wright’s performance will likely be devisive, as he hams up what is little more than a stereotypical mad scientist (right down to the limp), but he’s a villain figure that the film needs and is at least fun to watch, despite veering into cartoonishness. Michelle Monaghan is the most impressive of the three, taking one line that suggests the character is on the cusp of a life change and using it as the basis for a woman at once excited to be back in control of her future – irony noted – and open to new possibilities, but wary of making the wrong choices again. The character serves no purpose to the plot other than as token love interest for Gyllenhaal’s Stevens (or alter-ego Sean Fentress, to be technically correct – the best kind of correct), yet Monaghan makes it feel that it would be a loss were she not there. It helps, of course, that in looks and charm, she is one of those actresses whom any straight man would take far less than eight minutes to fall in love with.
Though the mediocre character writing requires the actors to be on their top game and the glaring plot holes ask the audience to be lenient with their disbelief, director Jones keeps the pace at a high enough tempo to limit the audience’s thinking time, while writer Ben Ripley controls the flow of information to maintain the mystery for as long as possible. If the film appears less idiosyncratic than Jones’ debut, it’s probably because the earth-bound locations and time period are more familiar. The interludes set in Stevens’ capsule recall Moon‘s excellent use of tight space, yet Jones’ camera is no less exact in moving back and forth through the train carriages, capturing details in the corners of the frame that disappear in a split-second but have lasting effects on one’s interpretations of the mystery. Is the man who goes into the toilet immediately after Stevens vacates it just repeating himself, or is it a new reaction to changing circumstances? Why did I just see someone glancing up at Stevens as he walked by? Despite a misstep in dredging up the useless ‘one obvious suspect’ routine to waste some time, Jones keeps the train carriage simmering with suspicion and throws in a number of tiny clues, with many more no doubt waiting to be found on second viewing.
Once the truth is revealed, the film unfortunately loses focus in its final half-hour. Although Jones and Ripley hold back from patronising their audience with an action-based finale of the sort that so often compromises the thoughtful tone of intelligent films in favour of a spectacular climactic ending, the mystery that has been at the heart of the story for the previous ninety minutes is dispatched with little sense of satisfying closure, preferring to give the characters the big moment instead. Given that Source Code often seems more interested in being a character piece than a thriller, it’s an understandable decision, but undone by the fact that despite the actors’ best efforts, the mystery is by far the film’s strongest suit and an earlier plot revelation compromises how much interest there is in following the two central characters once they’re off the train anyway. The sudden preachy tone and ‘isn’t life just grand’ message isn’t as jarring as The Adjustment Bureau‘s similarly ill-conceived conclusion, but feels no more sincere. The questions the story raises without such explicit declaration – how far a soldier’s dedication to his country can be expected to go, the moral questions of sacrificing one life to save many – are the ones that stick around.
The film has the appeal of a large-scale Twilight Zone or Quantum Leap episode (the latter affectionately homaged with a voice-only cameo) and much to recommend it in a growing talent behind the camera and excellent performances in front of it, but perhaps the writer should have taken another pass to correct all the details that come close to causing a derailment.
Sam Membrino: 8.4 – Director Duncan Jones (Moon) has crafted a heartfelt, subtle, and thoroughly engaging sci-fi film that will no doubt draw comparisons to a recent but in many ways inferior sci-fi-broken-narrative film, Inception. Where Inception fails (do we really care about Cobb seeing his kids again?), Source Code succeeds, winning over the audience with an efficiently paced narrative that sets the stakes so high we have to cheer for our protagonist (a sturdy performance by Jake Gyllenhaal). Keeping this movie from a higher score is a somewhat superficial love story that, although necessary, doesn’t add much to the film itself. Some moviegoers may have a problem with the ending, which in many ways is the film’s logical conclusion, but this shouldn’t prevent audiences from enjoying the films brisk 93 minute run time. Smart editing decisions, a fantastic script and pitch-perfect pacing launch this train out of the station as the thriller to beat this summer.
Glenn Morris: 6.75 – Every bit as derivative as the trailer suggests, Source Code still manages to inject adrenaline into a Sci-fi novelist sensibility. Like Unstoppable, it’s worth the ride but manufactured to a lower common denominator.
Matthew Razak: 8.0 – While the film definitely doesn’t blow you away with its incredible plot and glazes over a bunch of stuff that would be hard to explain away, it is easily one of the best science-fiction thrillers I’ve seen in a while. Director Duncan Jones keeps what could have been complicated and needlessly obtuse simple and fun to watch while his star, Jake Gyllenhal, adds impressive depth to what could have been a cookie cutter character.