- I can see how some people might have gotten the wrong impression about SOURCE CODE. The title is a little bland-feeling, the marketing campaign didn't quite make a huge impression, and in some ways, the movie looked, at first glance, like it might be a generic sort of sci-fi-tinged thriller. But film fans knew that Source Code had the potential to be something special. They knew that this was director Duncan Jones' followup film to MOON, and they knew that Moon is one of the best pure sci-fi movies to come out in recent years. That movie was innovative and surprising and was made on a shoestring budget - and it instantly made Jones (who also happens to be the son of the legendary David Bowie) into a name to watch. Well, Source Code marks Jones' sophomore effort, and it also marks his return to some of the same themes that colored his last movie. Like Moon, Source Code is intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi - but it also has a human center, mixing in humor, romance, and action with a killer premise that will have you buzzing as the credits roll. Source Code doesn't feel quite as fresh or ambitious as Moon, but it is one of the better sci-fi thrillers to come along in a while. It's a movie that could have indeed been generic and unremarkable in the wrong hands - but luckily for us, Jones takes the basic premise and helps make it into something special.
Part of what makes Source Code work so well is its unique structure. The movie throws us right into the middle of the action - meaning that we start off just as disoriented and confused as our protagonist, Colter Stevens (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). Colter finds himself on a train, sitting across from a woman, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who seems to know him. Somehow, Colter's conciousness is in another man's body. As Colter tries to make sense of this odd set of circumstances, his strange situation comes to a screeching halt when, eight minutes later, the train erupts in a fiery explosion. A bomb has gone off, destroying the train and killing most of its passengers. And it is at this moment that Colter "wakes up." Suddenly, he is in his own body, in a dark chamber, strapped to some sort of device. A video screen affixed to the wall flashes on, and a stoic military official, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) speaks to Colter. She gives him a series of trigger questions to help with his sense of disorientation. And, she instructs him that he is taking part in an experimental anti-terrorist procedure. The train bombing he had just experienced had actually happened earlier in the day. But thanks to utilization of "source code" - the residual memories that remain in the brain after death, memories of a person's last eight minutes of life, Colter's mind was able to relive one of the bombing victims' final eight minutes. And he would have to experience these same eight minutes over and over - as many times as needed until he can figure out who bombed the train and what their planned next target would be.
And therein lies the unique, puzzle-like nature of Source Code. In each eight-minute mindtrip, Colter has limited time to solve the mystery of the bombing. His one advantage is that each time he starts over again, he's armed wit hthe accumulated knowledge from his previous journeys. It's like playing a videogame level over and over until you've learned all of its ins and outs, all of its secrets - until you can ultimately defeat it. Now, this may sound like a recipe for a boring movie, but Duncan Jones and co. go to great lengths to make each eight-minute journey exciting. There is that real thrill of an ingeniusly clever puzzle slowly unravelling, of a mystery that's just within reach of being solved. Playing along with Colter as he gets closer and closer to figuring out what happened is, actually, a great deal of fun.
It also helps that Source Code has A LOT going on in addition to its central mystery. In fact, much like Moon, this movie delivers a couple of key twists as it goes that turn the entire premise on its head and make you reevaluate the entire film. And these twists are not really gimmicky - just very clever, and definitely game-changing. As we learn more about Colter and the truth behind his mission, the movie takes on a new sense of urgency, poignancy, and sci-fi craziness. But what I really respect about Source Code is that even as it ups the ante and delivers some killer twists, it maintains a sense of credibility and logic. I recently complained, for example, that The Adjustment Bureau went from sci-fi brain teaser to mystical fantasy all too quickly, and eventually gave up on all pretense of adhering to more grounded sci-fi logic. But Source Code is much more clever, even as it deals with similar themes of fate and identity and cosmic forks in the road.
I've seen Jake Gyllenhaal in some real crapfests lately (Prince of Persia, anyone?), but his role in Source Code is a return to the kinds of roles that first put him on the map. In fact, his wide-eyed sense of confusion and desperation - the fact that his character is confronted with huge ideas that are biger than he can fully comprehend ... it all reminds me a bit of Donnie Darko. To me, Gyllenhaal has always excelled at playing slightly unhinged characters who find themselves in weird circumstances, and this is therefore a perfect role for him. He does a great job in the film. The other standout for me was Vera Farmiga, who manages to do a lot with a somewhat limited role, as the officer forced to guide Colter through this risky and mysterious mission. Farmiga, who often appears only as a talking head, does a great job of conveying emotion and expressiveness with just the slightest grin or nod or bat of the eye. Essentially, she plays a character whose job forces her to be stoic - but thanks to Farmiga, we can tell that there is a lot going on beneath the surface. Meanwhile, Michelle Monaghan's main job is to establish an easygoing chemistry with Gyllenhaal, and at that she succeeds. The movie's climax would not work at all if we weren't invested in her character, and luckily, Monaghan makes the most of what she has to work with in the script. Jeffrey Wright is also in the mix as Farmiga's slightly sinister-seeming boss. I liked him, but thought he was perhaps a bit too over the top at times given the overall tone of the movie.
So what keeps Source Code from being great? It's tough, because I liked so much of the film, and was really impressed with everything from the slick, mood-setting direction to the excellent acting from the leads. I guess the movie loses points only because it seems like a couple of key aspects of the plot were a bit glossed-over in the interest of time and/or keeping things moving along at the standard Hollywood action-blockbuster pace. For one thing, the science of Source Code feels a little wonky at times. For a movie that's relatively rooted in reality, I would have appreciated a little more explanation of how all of this source code stuff actually works. I actually think a little more exposition about the movie's science would have given its ending revelations a bit more oomph. I guess watching a show like Fringe every week, and seeing the great John Noble routinely make crazy-ass sci-fi ideas sound plausible has spoiled me a bit. Would have liked to have seen Jeffrey Wright channel a little more Walter Bishop to help put over the underlying concepts of the film's premise. I mean, I actually do find some of the science-y concepts the movie deals with pretty fascinating, so I wish they could have gone into a little more depth in terms of exploring them. Secondly, some of the character stuff just feels a little rushed. Understandably, the film is trying to build a mystery, and so it can't reveal too much about its characters early on. But that means that Colter ends up as a bit too much of a blank slate. Even a couple of key extra details - why Coulter was best-suited for this mission, for example - might have gone a long way to give us some valuable insight into his character.
Overall though, Source Code is a movie that I think will surprise a lot of people with just how smart, intense, and thought-provoking it really is. So many big Hollywood thrillers feel dumbed-down - it's awesome to see a movie like this that has a cool, original idea at its core that actually makes you think. I was also impressed that Source Code managed to (without spoiling anything), have a nice sort of life-affirming message without getting overly cheesy or schmaltzy - certainly a difficult thing to pull off, but something that can be done when you stick to tight storytelling and solid characters. What's more, Source Code cements Duncan Jones as one of the most interesting up-and-coming directors around. He gives the movie a sense of intensity and forward-momentum that is really admirable, and yet still manages to have those moments of foreboding atmosphere and sci-fi wonder that made Moon so memorable. Source Code is a really cool sci-fi / action / mystery flick - one that I think deserves widespread support and acclaim.
My Grade: B+