Film review: SOURCE CODE

Source Code ***

2011, PG-13, 95 minutes

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Captain Colter Stevens), Michelle Monaghan (Christina Warren), Vera Farmiga (Colleen Goodwin), Jeffrey Wright (Dr. Rutledge), Michael Arden (Derek Frost), Cas Anvar (Hazmi), Rusell Peters (Max Denoff). Produced by Mark Gordon, Jeb Brody, and Jordon Wynn. Cinematography by Don Burgress. Editing by Paul Hirsch. Music by Chris Bacon. Written by Ben Ripley. Directed by Duncan Jones.

Source Code is a perplexing, exhilarating and taut thriller which feels like a modern concoction of an Alfred Hitchcock movie and an episode of Quantum Leap, but in the action-thriller genre. Like a lot of science-fiction premises, you are required to suspend your disbelief and journey along with the story and the main protagonist even if points in the story you find yourself questioning the logic of certain events or machinations. The film is not concerned with being realistic, but then again, most good science-fiction stories never are. What makes Source Code such an alluring and hypnotizing ride are the characters and the emotional epicenter in which everything happens. Duncan Jones, who directed the superb science-fiction drama Moon, is clearly interested in exploring characters and especially characters who find themselves in isolated scenarios. However, because Jones isn’t your typical action director, the film is not most exhilarating during the tense or action moments, but it is actually the most enthralling when you get to learn more about the characters or their relation to the story. Like any good action-thriller, what makes everything interesting are the characters involved, and Source Codesucceeds based on strong, absorbing and engaging characters.

The story finds Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal)  who literally awakens to find himself in another person’s body. He’s a passenger on a commuter train heading to downtown Chicago, but his last recollection finds him with his military unit operating helicopters in Afghanistan. The person sitting across from him, Christina (Monaghan), seems to know him but finds Stevens acting strangely. When Stevens tries to understand his situation, he realizes he doesn’t physically look like himself, but in fact resembles someone named Sean Fentress (or so his wallet, and Christina, tell him). Just as he’s putting some of the pieces of the puzzle together, the commuter eviscerates in a large, deafening explosion killing everyone on-board including Stevens. However, Stevens is not dead, and instead re-awakens to find himself in a capsule where he learns more about the situation and his mission from a military officer named Colleen Goodwin (Farmiga) and a scientist named Dr. Rutledge (Wright). It is there he learns about the “source code”, a computer program which allows him to re-live the last eight minutes of someone’s life. In this instance, he must re-live the last eight minutes of Sean Fentress’s life in order to understand who bombed the train. Without any more explanation, Stevens is plugged back into the source code simulation and forced to re-live those eight minutes until he finds the identity of the bomber.

If you’re at all confused or mystified at that plot synopsis, then it’s perfectly understandable. Source Code doesn’t necessarily dumb down the “quantum mechanics” of the technology in order to properly explain it to the audience, however you don’t need to be a genius in order to successfully understand the premise: one man blows up after eight minutes and must re-live those same eight minutes over and over again until he completes his mission. It’s simple enough to understand on a basic level, and the story does take its time trying to explain, and over-explain, the complications of its premise, which some science-fiction stories don’t even bother to do in the first place. If you’re wondering how redundant and repetitive the story could be based on the concept of re-experiencing the same sequence of events over and over again, then you don’t need to worry. Writer Ben Ripley and director Duncan Jones find interesting ways to change up the sequence of events, and Jones in particular finds exciting visual ways to differentiate the different sequences from each other so it doesn’t feel too redundant.

On top of that, you have Jake Gyllenhaal as Stevens who delivers a charming and persuasive performance. Gyllenhaal is a capable actor, but in the past he might not have found characters that he could convincingly connect with. Not the case here. With Colter Stevens, he fits perfectly into the weathered, clean cut, and always weary military archetype. He does have some experience playing military types (Jarhead), but here he’s much more of the stereotypical “leading man” figure that you often find in action films. However, there’s never a moment of questionable speculation in Gyllenhaal’s performance, and as the audience’s conduit into understanding the nature and mechanics of the story, he leads you along the way in a compelling and cogent manner. Gyllenhaal has some reasonably compelling material to work with, and winds up being very effective in some of the film’s more emotional scenes.

Michelle Monaghan plays the film’s perquisite love interest, Christina, and we don’t learn much about her. She’s there to look concerned and help Stevens through the complications of the story, but other than that she pretty much fits Stevens’ description of her: “The pretty girl. The distraction”. Other than that, unfortunately Monaghan doesn’t have much to work with and while she’s sweet, beautiful and cute (with some witty one-liners), she ends up being more of a cipher than a worthy counterpart to Gyllenhaal’s character. Even more so, Gyllenhaal’s character is pretty much the only character who we see any development or characterization from; all of the other characters, besides maybe Goodwin, feel like unimportant, tertiary characters who fill up the background but don’t offer any legitimate worth. Even when we do find out the identity of the bomber, it feels very perfunctory and we don’t get any further development or exploration besides basic surface level information. In fact, I would say the story is so focused on the structure and rigid formula it creates that it doesn’t allow for any deviations besides when we have quiet moments with Stevens and Christina, which ends up feeling unsatisfactorily substandard and almost like it came out of a romantic drama. There are some reflective moments, both with those characters and of the concept itself, but I would have preferred some more exploration on the mechanics of the premise or the other characters that we end up not learning much about.

However, with those observations aside, Source Code keeps an excellent pace and there aren’t any real lags in run-time that slow the story down in any big detrimental capacity. This is only the second feature-length film from Duncan Jones, but even with that in mind, the film has a fantastic aesthetic and it looks very good. The performances are all across the board solid, even if Jeffrey Wright delivers a slightly unnecessary over-the-top performance in some of the film’s more expository sequences. You can tell Jones has a real affinity for science-fiction and these kind of Hitchcock-ian thrillers, and there’s a real craftsmanship in how he structures the film’s more thrilling sequences. Although, on one end of the spectrum, you can also tell Jones has another strange affinity for a certain theme. This might be a trivial complaint, but in Moon (and if you haven’t seen that movie, turn back now) the basic theme or character development was Sam Rockwell’s character realizing he was a clone, or a copy, and the film dealt with the concept of what is real life and what is fabricated. Upon closer inspection, Source Codebasically has the same self-realization, and while I don’t want to spoil the ending, Gyllenhaal’s character arc is very similar to Sam Rockwell’s in that movie. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is very peculiar and interesting to notice. I wonder if this theme or idea is something Jones is just very fascinated with and will continue to explore in other movies or if it was just by accident.

Since we’re on the topic of Moon, I think I have to say that I preferred that film more over this one. While Source Code is a lot more exciting and moves at a much brisker pace, Moon was decidedly more original and felt more whole in its characterization and execution of its concept. To be completely fair, when you have more than one character, it does become a juggling act and Source Code is a reasonably sized upgrade in terms of scale, locations, and characters from Moon. However, I think Duncan Jones is a very talented writer, and I think with his next film I would like to see him directing something of his own rather than someone else’s script. Even still, Jones is a fantastically talented director and despite its flaws Source Code is a well-paced, well-acted, and well-directed above-average science-fiction action thriller. Duncan Jones has proven Moon wasn’t a fluke and Source Code, while not as original as it makes itself out to be, is a very fun, imaginative and brainy science-fiction thrill ride, and that’s something we don’t often get anymore. I look forward to Duncan Jones’ next film with much anticipation and excitement.

“Source Code”, directed by Duncan Jones, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright.
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