Source Code – film review
Jake’s on a train
Release Date: 1 April 2011
12A * 93 minutes
Distributor: Optimum Releasing
Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Russell Peters
There are few things more perilous in all of science fiction cinema than the tricky second movie. Just ask Richard Kelly, or Sam Raimi, who both stumbled in the quantum leap from much-loved indie debut to studio-sanctioned, big-budget follow-up. The risk of career-quashing calamity increases exponentially in relation to the impact of a director’s first impression, which makes any film to venture in the wake of Duncan Jones’s staggering debut Moon a riskier proposition than attempting deep space travel using a cardboard box and a couple of sparklers.
That his debut was so singularly sublime places near-insurmountable expectations on Source Code. But even with Jones skipping script duties (he provided the story for Moon) and a somewhat gimmicky, Groundhog Day-meets-12 Monkeys premise, there’s more than enough on offer to cement the Warcraft-lovin’ director as one of cinema’s most promising talents.
Opening on a sweeping shot of Chicago’s sun-kissed skyline, as if the camera is relishing liberation from Moon’s oppressive lunar base, we’re given little by way of introduction to Jake Gyllenhaal’s befuddled commuter Steven Colter, who stumbles around like an amnesiac for precisely eight minutes before his train goes up in a shower of flames and twisted metal. Colter is not your average fare-dodger though; he’s the body-hopping test pilot for a groundbreaking new piece of tech dubbed “source code” which puts him in the skin of a dead man during his final eight minutes on the mortal coil. Colter’s mission: to discover the identity of the bomber before he can strike again.
Much as with Moon, the less you know about Source Code going in the better. Hang on, don’t turn the page just yet! It’s not a spoiler to say that events transpire around the halfway mark that drastically alter not only the nature of Colter’s mission, but our perception of precisely what’s at stake, and make it dramatically clear that this is far more than your average “catch the killer” techno-thriller. Ben Ripley’s smart script might have more twists and turns than a Turkey Twizzler buffet, but it also lands an almighty emotional kick. There’s a heart to Source Code that Michael Bay couldn’t replicate if he sacrificed a nunnery in the name of the Dark Lord.
As Colter uses trial and error to slowly piece together puzzle, like the buzzcut love-child of Sherlock Holmes and Bill Murray’s Phil Connors, in the real world all is not as it seems. Trapped in an anonymous isolation chamber filled with ramshackle computer systems and leaky hydraulics, Colter is interrogated by military types Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) to fish for clues after each return visit to the train. The source code tech isn’t time travel but, as Rutledge puts it, “time realignment”, and one of the film’s few irritations is its apparent desire to justify the science with parabolic calculus and quantum gobbledegook when there’s no need.
The film is arguably at its strongest as a restrained romance, with Colter falling for fellow passenger Christina (Monaghan) as he’s forced to watch her die over and over again. When the dramatic climax you might expect limps in after barely an hour it’s irrelevant – Christina and the passengers on the train have become Colter’s mission, despite the fact that we know his every effort to save them is ultimately futile.
Jones understands this. His direction isn’t fussy or distracting; it’s efficient, but demonstrating frequent bursts of flair. As with Moon, the bulk of the action takes place in confined spaces, lending the film a Hitchcockian look and feel. Tonally it’s straight out of the Hitchcock playbook too, with welcome moments of humour seeded between the high tension and heart-wrenching drama. The train is inhabited by a parade of overly-familiar thriller types – the funny one, the angry one, the shifty one, the spotty kid, the “obvious-they-didn’t-do-it-but-really-did” one; but the film moves at such a pace – with the clock resetting after a cinema-shaking explosion every eight minutes – that interest rarely wanes.
Gyllenhaal plays Colter as less of an action man and more an everyman, a lost soul looking for an identity – a thematic echo of Moon – who’s perpetually having the virtual rug pulled out from under him. Monaghan’s role is important but occasionally feels slight and too detached from the bulk of the action, so that when she does stumble into a situation it can feel forced. After Moon’s memorable score, Chris P Bacon’s arrangement here (a late replacement for Moon maestro Clint Mansell) is a bit of a disappointment too, perfunctory at best during the film’s action thriller opening, but finding its feet for the second half.
A movie with an indie spirit and blockbuster sensibilities, Source Code is popcorn entertainment with genuine heft, and proof that the move to Tinseltown doesn’t always mean having to sell your soul to the suits.