A film review by Craig J. Koban April 7, 2011

Rank:  #16 


2011, PG-13, 93 mins.


Colter: Jake Gyllenhaal / Christina: Michelle Monaghan / Colleen: Vera Farmiga / Dr. Rutledge: Jeffrey Wright / Derek Frost: Michael Arden

Directed by Duncan Jones / Written by Ben Ripley

If 2009’s MOON - Duncan Jones’ debut film – demonstrated anything it was that thoughtful and contemplative sci-fi built on a solid foundation of engaging themes, compelling storylines, and strong performances have not died in the advent of the auditory/visual assault of the Michael Bay film.  The English born Jones (a.k.a. – Zowie Bowie, son of David) made a real splash with MOON for how he consummately told the story of a man who experiences the most peculiar of personal dilemmas as he neared the end of a solo three year stint on a lunar mining colony.  That film reveled in the character’s isolation and inner despair, and now comes Jones’ follow-up, SOURCE CODE, which continues to tackle that humanistic theme, but with an even more ingeniously devious twist. 

Utilizing an inspired and wickedly constructed script by Ben Ripley, Jones constructs a brainteasing conundrum of a sci-fi thriller: Its premise concerns a top secret governmental project that utilizes neural gadgetry to allow a participant’s consciousness to cross over and inhabit the body of another man.  Here’s the ultimate quandary: you can only inhabit the body of the man for the final eight minutes of his life.  When he dies you leave his consciousness, but can then be cognitively thrust back into his life…for his final eight minutes again…and the cycle repeats itself when required.

Still with me?  Confused?  SOURCE CODE’s basic premise is, on paper, totally preposterous, but the real achievement of Jones’ sophomore effort here is that he injects a human story and emotionally resonating performances within it to allow for our immediate buy in to the silliness of the story.  If anything, it shows how a pitch-perfectly assembled cast can really assist with selling the reality of a hard-to-swallow plot.  Then there is the headstrong meticulousness with how Jones tackles the hurdle of depicting the same eight minute time period in a number of successive ways to make each one stand well apart from the other, all while ensuring that the audience is never a step ahead of its temporal and human consciousness traveling hero.  On a level of engaging in fractured storytelling and portraying densely convoluted layers of reality, SOURCE CODE deserves worthy comparisons to MEMENTO and INCEPTION

Jones begins the film with a figural and literal bang and never looks back.  In the opening scene we meet Sean (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a determined performance of vulnerability, confusion, and gutsy perseverance) as he awakens from a nap on a Chicago-bound train.  His attractive female friend, Christina (Michelle Monaghan) sits across from him to greet him.  Sean has some issues right from the get-go, though: He is distraught, has no idea how he got on the train, and more confoundedly, he is absolutely convinced that he is not Sean.  He is certain that he is Colter Stevens and his last memory is serving in Afghanistan with the military.  To make things even more confusing and dire, eight minutes after he awakens the train blows up, killing everyone on board. 



Sean – or should I say Colter? – did not die, per se, in the explosion, but rather he finds himself in dark and dreary, hydraulic fluid leaking space capsule surrounded by computer screens.  One of them turns on and he is greeted and debriefed by a woman named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga, very good in a very tricky and demanding role).  Colter, obviously enough, is utterly bewildered – as is the audience – at this point, but slowly and surely he begins to remember and understand his predicament.  He is in fact Colter Stevens and via an quantum physics-infused explanation by a soft spoken, but mysterious scientist, Dr. Rutledge (played with a great poker faced sense of gentile calm that masks other motives by Jeffrey Wright) he learns that he has been placed in the “source code” which allows him to transfer his consciousness to the mind and body of Sean.  Each time he enters the code and enters Sean’s body his goal is to not only uncover a terrorist bombing plot aboard the train, but also to stop an even larger nuclear detonation in Chicago itself.  Roadblocks frustrate his attempts with each eight minute "trip" he takes, but even worse is that he begins to develop a sense of kinship with Christina the more time (or multiple times) he spends with her and strives to save her life, even though he has been instructed that saving anyone on the train is impossible.  Then there are his nagging memory lapses about his tour in Afghanistan: just how did he go from enlisted and serving soldier to being whisked into the Source Code without remembering how? 

Many people have been commenting on how SOURCE CODE resembles GROUNDHOG DAY, which I think diminishes its exhilarating cleverness and daring novelty.  I think that SOURCE CODE plays more like a hybrid of THE MATRIX mixed with MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS with a mild dash of TV’s QUANTUM LEAP.  Like THE MATRIX and the very recent – a well made – ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, SOURCE CODE tackles one of the most prevalent and intriguing of all sci-fi themes: the nature of reality and our perception of it.  Jones is not a director that’s interested in lavish, big-budget pyrotechnics and spectacle that so many modern sci-fi films have in abundance (even though the film has its share of moments like that).  He’s much more obsessed with the inner mindsets and emotional fragilities of his protagonists, which makes MOON and SOURCE CODE more rewarding, engrossing, and enjoyably confounding to dissect.  He explores the growth of Colter not only in terms of how he uses deductive reasoning and ingenuity to solve his case under the most bizarre of circumstances, but also on a level of his growing actualization of what happened to him in-between his military tour and his participation in the Source Code.  When we do discover the secret behind his involvement, it doesn’t cheat the audience by contradicting key aspects of the story, but it also adds a whole other fascinating layer to Colter’s presumed fate within the project.  He is trapped within the Source Code in ways well beyond his control. 

The film’s real achievement is how Jones manages to generate hair-raising suspense, propulsive momentum, and an endless sense of interest in its series of revisits to the final minutes of Sean’s life.  This is no easy feat, seeing as Jones has to portray the same eight minutes as they transpire, but from divergent reactions and POVs each time.  Each time Colter enters the code and processes more observable clues and evidence, the more confident and capable he becomes.  The multiple trips back to the train also leads to some of the film’s frequent moments of unlikely humor (like the way he initially – and wrongfully - profiles ethnic races as potential terror suspects, not to mention the incredulous reactions he gets from most of the commuters with his odd behavior on board).  Yet, like the finest instances of Hitchcockian thrillers, Jones knows how to shrewdly manipulate his audiences into thinking they know more than they actually do.   The script teases and torments viewers with its jerky narrative going back and forth in time, oftentimes posing just as many new questions as it provides answers to initial ones.  

Again, the one thing that came across my mind after seeing SOURCE CODE and MOON is that exploring the reality and implications of high concept ideas and themes has returned to the sci-fi genre.  Jones has become a real maestro – with just two feature films under his belt – on how to create a sci-fi/thrillers with a evocative sense of scale and interest with the most paltry of budgets (SOURCE CODE was made for only $40 million; MOON only $5 million).  SOURCE CODE looks as good as any other similar genre effort five times its cost, but it's how it judiciously exploits its ideas that really sells it for me.  The film’s twists, ambiguities, and ending for sure will generate considerable water cooler discussion, but how refreshing is it to have example of sci-fi like SOURCE CODE that dutifully and confidently invokes debate and discussion?  I love it when filmmakers place implicit trust in their audiences while respecting their collective intelligence, and few recent examples of the sci-fi genre are as thought provoking and as entertaining as hell as SOURCE CODE. 

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