SOURCE CODE: A Cunning, Intelligent, Science Fiction Thriller
By John Harvey
Director Duncan Jones seems to have found his niche in science fiction films that eschew massive spaceships, menacing aliens and huge special effects budgets, in favor of character and story development. His only previous feature film credit is the thoroughly enjoyable MOON (2009 starring Sam Rockwell), which provided a more cerebral breed of science fiction.
The difference between SOURCE CODE and MOON, is that SOURCE CODE provides a warmer, more personable tone that is more inviting to the average viewer. Though a wonderful film, MOON’s mood and environment is much more emotionally distant and cold (an intentional effect).
In SOURCE CODE, Air Force Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train approaching Chicago. Across from him sits Christina Warren (Michele Monaghan), a fellow commuter in mid-conversation who obviously knows him well. But Stevens has more pressing problems than nodding off mid-chat with a pretty woman; he doesn’t know who she is or how he got there. His last memory is flying combat missions in Afghanistan. In a panic, he dashes to the bathroom compartment and the mirror reveals a face that is not his own. Stevens’ efforts to discover what has happened to him are cut short when a massive bomb explodes, killing him and everyone on the train.
But not really.
He regains consciousness again in something resembling a cross between a cockpit and a sensory deprivation chamber. Via a small monitor, Air Force officer Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and an emotionally-distant scientist (Jeffrey Wright) ask questions about the train and the people on it. From here, the film slowly reveals that he is part of an ambitious government science project called “Source Code.” Combining quantum physics and time travel, this technology puts his consciousness into the body of a man who died on that commuter train, but only during the last eight minutes of his life. His mission is to relive those eight minutes over and over until he figures out the bomber’s identity, which will allow authorities to stop a much more devastating attack later that day.
So, let’s get one thing straight here. The “science” in SOURCE CODE is a big steamy pile of horse poo. It’s a blatant MacGuffin that exists solely to allow the filmmakers to explore ideas, move the plot forward and focus on the characters. If you’re prone towards hand wringing when filmmakers don’t display an adequate knowledge of string theory, then this movie will drive you out of your skull. On the other hand, if you can ignore bad or even silly science in a film, then you’ll be fine here.
More accurately, SOURCE CODE resembles what would happen if Philip K. Dick sat down with Rod Serling and said, “Smoke this and then let’s talk story.” It’s mind-bending and taut, while having a distinct sense-of-wonder inherent to old time sci-fi.
But at its core, SOURCE CODE is a thriller with a dash of mystery whodunnit. Every time Stevens repeats those last eight minutes, he competes against the clock to shake clues out of his environment and the other passengers in order to avert disaster. Each trip also forces him form stronger attachments to his fellow passengers (Christina in particular) and ask questions about the nature of his own existence and how he got there. Though the scientists insist that what he experiences is not time travel, but rather shadows from alternate universes, Stevens develops stronger doubts each time he repeats the cycle. Add to that the growing tension as he begins to suspect that his Source Code handlers aren’t telling him everything about his own situation. It’s a deft balance between the mission’s twists and turns and Steven’s own internal struggle.
While concept and plot in this movie work very nicely, it is perhaps at the detriment to character depth (though the acting all around is fine). This is a trade-off to the fact that there’s a lot going on in this film and at a very frenetic pace. Even with these minor flaws, SOURCE CODE provides an original and intelligent story that provides both action and psychological thrills.
And, in the end, SOURCE CODE delivers the goods and wraps up nicely. Though perhaps the ending veers even more sharply away from science into pure fantasy, which may put off some viewers. I got over it and would recommend this film.
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© Copyright 2011 by John D. Harvey
AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you want to hear an interview with SOURCE CODE screenwriter Ben Ripley, then check out the Slice of SciFi’s podcast #309: http://www.sliceofscifi.com/2011/04/02/slice-of-scifi-309/ .
Directed By: Duncan Jones
Written By: Ben Ripley
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright
Run Time: 1hr 34min
(Editor’s Note: If you’re a fan of John’s columns, do yourself a favor and check out his amazing novel, THE CLEANSING, published by Arkham House Press. I can’t praise this one highly enough).