Running time: 93 minutes. Rating: PG-13 for some violence including disturbing images, and for language. Directed by: Duncan Jones Written by: Ben Ripley Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
Will the bomb explode or not? It’s the classic conundrum at the heart of many an action movie. The hero discovers a plot threatening a bus/daycare/city/etc., races against time and the bad guys to stop it, and then the device either detonates or it doesn’t. In lieu of an original idea, this formula might be repeated several times during the same movie; a rinse and repeat of hair’s breadth rescues and concussive explosions.
Meet Duncan Jones’ Source Code, using the formula so often in the context of the story, that the hero must run through the scenario every eight minutes. Even bolder, it’s the same explosion every time and according to hero-guy’s sources, the outcome will never change. Imagine sitting through that for an hour and a half. Now, imagine it’s also the best action movie of the year so far.
Initially playing out as a nutty melding of Groundhog Day and Twelve Monkeys, Source Code evolves into that rarest of thrillers; one with a heart and a brain, where our interest lies in the characters and their actions instead of the merciless gears of the plot. Throw in some absurd but thought-provoking sci-fi concepts and a sturdy performance by a usually bland lead, and you’ve got something worth getting up and going to the multiplex for. Hallelujah.
The movie’s opening denouement: Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhal) wakes up on a commuter train heading for Chicago, next to the pretty and adoring Christina (Michelle Monaghan). After realizing something’s wrong, he goes to the men’s room and realizes he’s not Colter at all, but instead a teacher named Sean. Last Colter remembered, he was piloting a military helicopter in Afghanistan. Before he can suitably puzzle through this enigma, the train explodes, killing everyone on it. Then Colter wakes up again—this time as himself—and discovers he’s part of a government project called ‘Beleaguered Castle’, trapped within a device that will allow him to relieve these traumatic eight minutes over and over again, armed with the knowledge that he can never change what he’s experiencing.
From there, it’s venturing into heavy spoiler territory and I promise to tread lightly. All that’s really safe to tell you is the following: The device Colter inhabits, looking a little like Terry Gilliam’s version of that shuttle that Jodie Foster piloted through the cosmos in Contact, is capable of propelling him into the ‘source code’, a virtual reality based off the last eight minutes of a dead-man’s memories. What surprises Colter is that these jaunts into the source code are becoming disorienting; he remembers each visit and each wrinkle, but those around him remain unfazed. For Christine it’s a few happy moments with Sean before oblivion. For Colter it’s the beginning of a love that will infect his mind and inspire him to change that which he’s been told he can’t; the very course of time.
Strangely enough, the concept of love and how it affects the decisions we make and the people we are is built into the deepest levels of Source Code. And don’t be fooled, despite its wonky science and mainstream veneer, the film goes plenty deep. Right alongside a delightfully confounding dialogue of string theory and multiple universes is an exploration of how we as people are defined by all kinds of ‘love’—platonic, romantic, paternal and even patriotic. Although it plays out with all the intensity of a well-oiled thriller, at its heart Source Code wants to be a humanistic slice of hard science-fiction. Who we are as human-beings crashes into the cosmic fabric of time and space and our notions of free-will and sacrifice are fully tested. Like Jones’ debut Moon, the crux of this intellectual/emotional mash-up is down to one isolated individual. In that earlier film, Sam Rockwell. Here, Jake Gyllenhaal.
Perhaps it was cutting his teeth on Donnie Darko, or that he’s given a compelling and constantly expanding character to play, but Gyllenhaal does his career’s best work as Colter Stevens. I’ve never taken him for the cool, saavy action star (certainly not in Prince of Persia) but here he pulls off a role that would normally go to Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis and he gives it a degree of pathos. In Moon, Rockwell only had himself to talk to; Gyllenhaal has prettier conversation buddies in Monaghan and Farmiga. The two share very different relationships with Colter, but it’s interesting how Jones juxtaposes their interaction and how well the ladies do given the limitations of the respective roles. Vera’s Goodwin is only looking at Colter via a video feed, and spends most of her scenes behind a desk. Monaghan has to develop a rich and intimate warmth in the context of those eight repeating minutes, and somehow, she pulls it off. The only awkward member of the cast is Jeffrey Wright’s sinister doc, who pitches his acting at a level a bit too baroque for the proceedings.
Source Code works like gangbusters despite the fact it probably shouldn’t. What could be silly and stuffy is actually a taut and engrossing thriller. It doesn’t matter that we know the train will blow up, because the film isn’t remotely about that. It starts there, and makes good use of that setting, but it’s in Colter’s unraveling of the mystery he’s caught up in that generates the real tension and intrigue. There’s also a surprising amount of humor in watching Jake try and make changes in his eight-minute loop to test his delusional presumption that he might actually change the course of time.
In Source Code, Jones uses all of the cinematic tricks to make a wind-up toy of suspense that also doubles as a thinking man’s popcorn flick. The aesthetic pleasures range from Don Burgess’ sumptious cinematography–exhilarating bird’s eye views of Chicago and the claustrophobic, paranoid interiors of Jake’s hi-tech cell–to a sneaky and emotionally generous score by Chris Bacon. Sure, there are plenty of holes in the central conceit and occasionally the plotting is overly vague when it could relax a little. Source Code might be ludicrous in concept, but that’s all part of the fun. Taking this trip, even again and again for every one of those 8 minute intervals, is preferable to almost all the other big-budget journeys I’ve had this year at the movies.