This review was originally published on March 12, 2011
In 2009, Duncan Jones burst onto the film scene with a quiet, contemplative science fiction movie, “Moon,’ a movie he not only directed but came up with the original story idea as well. For fans of science fiction its been wildly loved and for good reason; it’s imaginative, features an outstanding performance from Sam Rockwell and, as with any great sci-fi movie, is a sum of more than its parts. “Moon,” unlike the movies Hollywood rolls out to audiences every summer, delivers much more than loud bangs, fighting robots and sexy women in tight shorts. For his sophomore effort, Jones continues to dip into science fiction storytelling with “Source Code”, except this time we get a deft mix of those Hollywood explosions and an intriguing story of a man put into an extraordinary situation.
Shot in beautiful digital, “Source Code” begins with aerial shots of Chicago, trains coming and going from the city, bustling workers to and from their daily routines. Waking up on the train, looking confused, Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) sits across from an attractive woman (Michelle Monaghan) who tells him “I took your advice. It was good advice.” As the train ride plays out we come to discover that Stevens is in the possession of the body of another man. Before any resolution occurs, an explosion engulfs the train, killing everyone, causing Stevens to wake strapped inside a capsule, surround by monitors, on which one has the calming face of Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) who may or may not be in charge of what is going on. We come to learn that he’s been sent by a government agency back to the train to experience the last eight minutes before the explosion via the body of a dead man. Its an attempt to find the identity of a train bomber before he can strike again by setting off a dirty bomb in downtown Chicago. As science fiction storytelling goes the basic premise there is relatively straightforward and what then plays out for the next hour and half is at many times predictable but also very thrilling, funny and exciting.
Giving off an easy charm, Gyllenhall’s Stevens races the clock time and time again to question the passengers on the train, people his body swapped character knows from the 5 day commute, day in an day out. He has an obvious rapport with Christina (Monaghan) and clearly they’ve spent time chatting on their ride into Chicago if she’s taking his advice. But who is the bomber and can he be stopped? And does it even matter if hes stopped if everyone is essentially dead? It does to Stevens and its here where writer Ben Ripley and Jones succeed beyond the average. This fine line between a typical science fiction thriller, where the same “Groundhog Day” repetition of events leads to the protagonist being one step closer to the identity of the bomber, and the other much smarter side, where this journey allows him to grow to care about Christina and the passengers and to begin to believe that its possible to save them and change the past is where Jones excels. Also inspired is the casting of Gyllenhall and Monaghan who have an onscreen chemistry that feels natural and easy and the journey Farmiga’s Goodwin undergoes as she bonds with Stevens over a monitor resolves in such a touching way it reveals a performance that while understated is one of the more complex in the film.
Rather than risk giving away too much, lets just say that if you’ve watched any summer blockbuster, there’s little here that hasn’t been done before. It’s that crux of the story however, had a group of us debating it for hours afterwards. Playing with time and shifting time lines around in a story is never easy in film. Go to far into the technical side of the science and you risk the chance of confusing the audience ( “Primer,” a movie I love but to this day cannot explain). But if done correctly, a classic story is developed and used as classroom material on screen writing (“Back to the Future”). Somewhere in between, “Source Code” is story that on a basic level will appease an audience looking for a quick thrill ride but one that never quite gives a straight answer.