Directed by Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden
Written for In Review Online:
If debut feature "Moon" heavily suggested that director Duncan Jones was under the spell of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, his follow-up would appear to solidify that theory. Less overtly sci-fi based, in that it actually takes place on Earth, "Source Code" remains fundamentally about the battle between technology and human nature. Jones sets up a terrorist-thwarting plotline initiative and shrouds it in ethical dilemma: should science rule over humanity, or vice versa? It's hardly a novel struggle to address, but he takes a fresh approach to helping us invest in his ergonomic marvel, and creating a military setup which, unsurprisingly, considerably stretches traditional relations between time and space.
American soldier Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) forms the basis of this dilemma, as he wakes up in an unknown facility with only a monitor in front of him for comfort, and is informed that he is the subject of a technological program. The experimental system in question allows him to tap into the final eight minutes of the life of Sean Fentress, a passenger killed by a bomb planted on board a Chicago commuter train that morning. As he is able to assume Sean's position on the train in the period prior to the explosion, Colter's mission is to gather information about the terrorist plot, so as to prevent a larger-scale attack in the city later that day. In the meantime, he must veer between the two women in his life: Sean's colleague Christina (Monaghan), who is on board the train with him throughout every eight-minute segment, and Goodwin (Farmiga), the military employee commanding him in intervals throughout the process.
"Source Code" possesses a similar gimmick to 2007's Vantage Point in that it essentially replays the same eight minutes of time for most of the film, alternating between different eventualities and degrees of success. The level of suspense in the first half of the film, where it’s leaking exposition and constructing its situation, is fairly high. Gyllenhaal’s terrific energy elevates the entire project, as the characters on the train, and the dynamic between them, appears to develop naturally. He even coaxes Monaghan (an Actress who I’d previously found a little distant from previous on-screen love interests) into some gamely chemistry, as their relationship gathers steam.
It would be unfair to suggest that the film apes other projects (Tony Scott's Deja Vu (2006) for instance) in its allusive use of time-travel to fight crime, but there are definite parallels between their liberal attitudes towards logic. Either way, there isn't much wrong with how either film presents its technological capabilities: If Nicholas Cage and John Travolta can swap faces then anything's possible, right? The issue with "Source Code" is not that it's far-fetched, but that it loses sense of what it’s supposed to be. Its representation of terrorism for example – while not as 2-D as other cinematic depictions of villainy – centres around a damaged college student's personal insecurity. Michael Arden, as said student, recalls another Michael (Pitt, in "Funny Games"), and it feels as if he's stepped straight off of that set without deviating from its particular brand of idiosyncratic sadism a jot.
Since the essential action is compacted into a physically-limited vehicular setting, we aren’t really privy to an overall sense of the bigger picture in this particular day of terror for the nation. An opening-credits aerial sweep of Chicago is bracing enough at the time but retrospectively disingenuous, and the implied scope of the mission intoned in Colter’s hurried exchanges with Goodwin don’t really give us much of an idea either. For a high-concept thriller, “Source Code” frequently possesses such an inflated sense of grandeur: this isn’t a big, blazing sci-fi adventure, but rather an oft-personalised meditation on survival, and the tougher political consequences behind protocol. The multi-scenario format bounds on, as more of a conceit than a story, with a narrative that – in terms of dramatic impetus – flat-lines more often than it should. The stop-start structure soon becomes tiresome, and in the few moments where it reaches an unexpected plot-point, the film's dramatic devices read as a little desperate. In the way that "Moon" felt like it could have had more to offer, "Source Code" is overdone as a virtual-reality exercise, running out of steam far too quickly for a 90-minute feature.
Would it that the film’s finale held up to the rulebook it had outlined in the first place, “Source Code” just might have felt like a worthwhile addition to Jones’ filmography. As it happens, he too spurns his own protocol for a satisfying Hollywood finish. Jones may not be done with sci-fi yet, but one feels that he must collate his ideas more thoughtfully next time around. It may be somewhat original, but contrary to everything “Source Code” implies in a roundabout, flimsy final act, it somehow feels like the world has succumbed to its dangers after all: not with a bang, but a whimper.