Source Code ****½ One of a number of British directors to break out in a big way in the last few years, Duncan Jones – who many may still think of as the son of David and Angela Bowie – made his breakthrough back in 2009 with Moon, a science fiction film starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey that favoured substance over flash – although style certainly wasn’t something it was lacking – it being a film that aimed to make the audience think rather than wow them with elaborate action sequences and one that utilised old fashioned effects techniques over cutting edge visual effects, something that lent the film a somewhat distinctive look that made it stand out from the rest of the 21st century science fiction movies around at the time.
With only a limited cinema release, Moon was not a huge box office success but it did create enough of an impression in terms of both critical opinion and audience word of mouth to get Jones noticed and, just like Monsters director Gareth Edwards who has been snapped up to do a new Godzilla movie, he has now been snapped up by Hollywood, Source Code being his first all American movie – something which is Britain’s loss but America’s gain – although this time he is purely on directorial duties and has not been involved with the story for the film. Source Code screenwriter Ben Ripley’s track record is probably not one that will inspire much confidence, his only previous credits being straight to DVD films Species III and Species: The Awakening and TV movie The Watch, but the positive response that the film has received so far speaks for itself.
The second serious grown up science fiction movie with a strong male lead to be released in about a month, following the excellent but slightly underrated by some The Adjustment Bureau, thus far Source Code has been wowing critics every bit as much as Jones’ debut did. And it is great to see the strong (but sadly underrated) actor that is Jake Gyllenhaal getting another leading role to really sink his teeth into. Gyllenhaal really doesn’t seem to be that much of a box office draw but roles in a variety films ranging from Jarhead to Zodiac, Rendition to Brothers and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to Love and Other Drugs have shown that he is a very charismatic and extremely capable leading man in spite of the apparent indifference often shown towards him by the paying cinemagoer and his presence in Source Code, alongside a supporting cast that includes such other talented but also perhaps underrated acting talents as Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright, is most welcome. So, with a cast that is strong and word of mouth that has so far ranged from good to sensational, does Source Code retain the filmmaking strengths that made Moon such a stand out debut for director Duncan Jones or does it rather show that he is just a one hit wonder whose filmmaking talents have been distinctly muted by his crossing over to Hollywood?
Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a soldier who is bewildered to find himself trapped inside the body of man he doesn’t know, travelling on a train headed to Chicago and right in the middle of a conversation with a woman named Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) who thinks he is a teacher named Sean. He has no memory of how he got there and no clue as to what is going on but eight minutes later the train is destroyed in an explosion which kills everyone on board. After being ‘killed’ in the explosion, Stevens finds himself awakening in a dark and oppressive capsule where a voice over a monitor asks him to reveal who bombed the train he was just on. It turns out that Stevens is part of a project known as the Source Code, a project that enables him to relive the last eight minutes of a person’s life, in this case Sean Fentress, and it is his mission to find out who bombed the train earlier that day, thus enabling the authorities to prevent an even bigger bombing in the city of Chicago from taking place.
Stevens is extremely reluctant but Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) informs him that he must carry out his mission or millions will die. Returning again and again to the eight minutes before the explosion in an attempt to try and identify the bomber, Stevens finds himself falling for Christina and begins to embark on a personal mission, to stop the bombing from taking place altogether. Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) says changing the past is not possible, stating that “this is not time travel, this is time reassignment” and “you cannot alter this reality whilst inside the Source Code” but this is not going to stop Steven’s determination to alter the events aboard the train, thus saving not only Christina but all the passengers and potentially millions more.
Kind of like what you might get if you were to cross Groundhog Day with Inception and Quantum Leap by way of Speed and a little bit of Déjà Vu, Source Code may not be the most overtly original science fiction thriller that you’re likely to see and it may also not challenge your intellect in the way that Inception did but Duncan Jones has crafted something that manages to hold its own even while its many influences are so obviously worn on its sleeve. Jones wastes no time in throwing us head first into the fray, the original music score by Chris Bacon utilising Hitchcockian tones from the outset to create a sense of impending dread for the explosion that we known well is coming and that does come within the first eight minutes of the film’s running time, something that makes for a truly explosive opening. If you’ve seen the trailer for the film you will already be fully aware of the crux of the plot and you may also have come to the impression that the film shares some characteristics in common with 2008 thriller Vantage Point, a film which showed essentially the same event occurring over and over again, something that proved somewhat detrimental as the film became very repetitive.
Fortunately, repetition isn’t too much of a problem for Source Code. To start with we are not viewing the same events from the perspectives of different characters but rather we are seeing everything from the perspective of one protagonist whose experiences differ each and every time he goes back, little details seeming to differ on each occasion and, as he gathers more intelligence on the situation, him playing out events completely differently. Then, unlike Vantage Point where the events had happened and there was no going back to stop them, there is the notion here that it might be possible to change the events. Despite Jeffrey Wright’s techno babble speaking Dr. Rutledge stating that “this is not time travel, this is time reassignment” we honestly do come to believe that Stevens has a real shot at changing the events aboard the train and the way things play out, while proving to be slightly headache inducing from the perspective of metaphysics, ultimately proves quite smart and slightly thought provoking – although not on the level of Inception.
While Steven’s failure to notice several potentially vital clues that would enable him to identify the bomber sooner suggest a certain incompetence on the part of the character, this could perhaps be attributed to the idea that perhaps he isn’t the most qualified individual for the job and, despite him seemingly missing out on certain clues that even we might pick up on, there are a few twists and revelations that do manage to prove reasonably surprising as they become revealed to both him and us. The plot here is quite complicated but not so much that you should have difficulty decoding what is going on and, just when you think the film is going to end on an all too Hollywood feel good note – the ending is still admittedly very Hollywood though – it manages to surprise a little with a twist that will make anyone without a degree in metaphysics thinking upon leaving the cinema – I say anyone without a degree in metaphysics because, while like the story is quite intelligent, someone with a really high IQ may well see right through a lot of what happens in this film. The characters are generally well developed, us not knowing everything about any of them but knowing more than enough to develop an empathy towards them and the performances in general are very good. Jake Gyllenhaal once again proves to be a very strong and charismatic lead with a performance that is very engaging.
At first, he does a convincing look of confusion and bewilderment, his eyes, facial expressions and body movements all perfectly portraying someone who genuinely doesn’t know what is going on and, as his confusion bewilderment give way to an increasingly struggling mental state, part fear and panic, part anger and frustration, all of which are very understandable emotions for a character in his situation to be experiencing, his character’s angers and frustrations inside the capsule – which itself is a very dark and sinister screen presence, it being clear from the beginning that it isn’t quite what it seems to be – prove to be completely believable as does the trauma we see him in as a result of being killed over and over again. Gyllenhaal perfectly captures the cocky and somewhat insubordinate nature of his character, imbuing his performance with a certain arrogant charm and never once does he fail to convince in the role.
There is a spark between Gyllenhaal and co-star Monaghan from quite early on in the film, Monaghan being a warm and likable screen presence in herself as well as a strong romantic interest and the unusual romantic dynamic that forms between their characters proves to be interesting and different, Stevens finding himself falling for Christina over the course of many return trips to the last eight minutes of Sean’s life while she only experiences the same eight minutes again and again with no clue as to the greater events that are going on. It helps, of course, that the precise nature of the relationship between Sean and Christina isn’t entirely certain to begin with thus enabling Colter and Christina to start on an effectively blank slate. Gyllenhaal also shares an interesting chemistry with Vera Farmiga, their two characters never meeting other than over a video screen but them each developing a sincere respect for one another.
Farmiga initially seems very frosty and uncaring in her role but her smile suggests a far more likable person within and as the film progresses her frosty exterior gives way to a far more empathetic individual who proves to be far more sympathetic towards Steven’s situation than might initially be expected. The one weak link in the cast is Jeffrey Wright who speaks with a slightly bizarre and hard to place accent and who fails to really convince in his role. One more performance of note in the film, although not so much a performance really, is an easter egg of a cameo appearance by Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula, something that only the more observant of viewers are really likely to pick up on.
This is also a film that looks pretty good, Don Burgess’ slick and smooth cinematography at times being bright and vibrant and at others dark and oppressive, ranging from spectacular aerial shots of Chicago at the start of the film which get us acquainted with the city whose very existence is being threatened to the more claustrophobic visuals of the capsule. A major departure from the style and feel of Moon, being very different to but by no means lesser than that film, Source Code is a strong Hollywood debut for Duncan Jones. Exciting, thrilling and a bit smart, not to mention occasionally being a bit funny – although whether or not this is intentional remains to be seen – this is a film that will have you on the edge of your seat and perhaps leave you with some food for thought upon leaving the cinema.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)