Source Code has been a hotly anticipated film. At least around these parts.
Moon was the sort of left-field, brain-bustingly brilliant debut that makes instant converts of those who see it (as sadly few as that may have been). We all immediately fell for Duncan Jones, as we fell for the likes of Shane Carruth, Christopher Nolan, or Bryan Singer before him. And I think we all sighed with relief when Jones didn’t pull a Carruth-style disappearing act and Source Code was promptly announced as his follow-up.
Of course, when you burst on the scene with such high marks, there is always the danger of a sophomore slump. Happens to the best of them. Happened to Nolan, happened to Singer (though, if we’re getting technical, it was their sophomore efforts that exploded them on the scene; but you get what I mean). Could Source Code be another Moon? Could it actually kick things up another notch, dazzling us with the realization that Moon was merely a warm-up? Or would it suffer from comparison? Or, god forbid, would it suck?
The film certainly doesn’t suck. Viewed on its own terms, Source Code is a gripping ride with a lot of clever bits, but, unlike Moon – which achieved emotional depth by plumbing its high concept – Jones’ latest effort is held back from becoming truly great by its own conceits.
All the right kinds of pieces are certainly in place for another Duncan Jones home run. Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot fighting in the Middle East, awakes on a commuter train unable to remember how he got there. More troublesome yet, a pretty fellow passenger, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), seems to think that Colter is a public school teacher. And that his name isn’t even Colter. A quick check in Colter’s wallet only validates Christina’s feelings. Just when things can’t get any weirder for Colter, the train blows the fuck up. Colter awakes once more, now inside a cramped module, speaking with Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) through a monitor. As Colter’s memories slowly return, we learn that Colter is part of a high-tech government program created by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), that – long story short – is effectively sending Colter back in time, with the mission of rooting out the train’s bomber. The catch is that Colter only has an eight minute window in which to conduct his investigations. Conceptually the film is a crazy mash-up of Twelve Monkeys, Groundhog Day, and Quantum Leap, with a bit of No Way Out real-time tension.
To reveal any more of the story would rob Source Code of it primary appeal: twists and turns and surprises. Renn noted in his review that this isn’t a “twist film.” Meaning it’s not a M. Night movie. But the unfolding of the plot is the sort of roller coaster ride of slow reveals and upended expectations you would hope for from Jones. And it is in this area that I was dually impressed and a little disappointed with Source Code.
On the upside: the film never stopped surprising me. I won’t lie to you, the film has a fair number of dud moments, but in almost every instance, just when I’d get down on a particular plot point or whathaveyou, the film would flip things around on me and I’d embrace it all over again, often stronger than I had before. The downside: all the dizzying plot-play never quite allowed the love story or the characters to truly connect with me.
Source Code may be a ridiculous sci-fi action film with a high-concept that barely even makes sense within its own reality, but the love story between Colter and Cristina is where your suspension of disbelief will be most required. The moment in Act I when Colter illogically becomes interested in Cristina during the confusion and mayhem of his 8-minute loops is the film’s true macguffin. You just need to accept it and move on, or the film won’t really work. Because at its heart, Source Code is a romance.
Source Code is also surprisingly light. And very fun. These attributes could very well make the film a hit with the kind of broader audience that has no interest in the headier convictions of a film like Moon. And I think existing Jones fans will also like it, as long as they enter with weakened and realistic expectations. Despite the somewhat negative tone I think I’m creating thus far, the film is very enjoyable. It’s just, as I said, light.
“Rollicking” is a good word to describe Source Code, and not one I would have expected to use before seeing the film. While the film unquestionably depends on an untangling knot of backstory and pseudo-science to keep you on the edge of your seat, Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley spoon it to us in a very easily digestible fashion that allows the film to play as a mainstream action-suspense flick. Despite the fact that the high-concept ideas at play don’t make any goddamn sense, the film is quite easy to follow. This is a sci-fi “brain-buster” I’d recommend to my mother, who couldn’t make heads or tails of Momento. I suppose that sounds like a backhanded compliment here at CHUD, but I don’t think Jones owed the world another Moon just yet. I think Source Code could be viewed as his The Town or Inside Man, where he’s showing the big boys that he can play by their rules, while still keeping his interests and stylistics in tack.
Source Code is a 180 for Jones from Moon when it comes to direction. “Rollicking” surely never appeared in a single review for Moon. But Jones brings an unexpected levity to the tension of Colter’s time crunch. Like in Groundhog Day, once Colter fully grasps the upside to being in a time loop, his actions become bolder and at times comically reckless. The scenes and sequences of Colter “on the job,” so to speak, are when Source Code is most effective. His scenes back in the present, arguing with Goodwin and Rutledge, will likely be audience dividing moments. I suspect some people will really get into the weirder elements of the film presented in these scenes, but this is also where the film will verge on the silly side for other viewers. And like I said, you just gotta take the romance as it is, otherwise the film can’t play. If you can’t take the romance in stride, I have to imagine the entire film will feel like a misfire.
Much like Moon, Source Code is effectively a one man show. Though Gyllenhaal is surrounded by numerous characters, those in the time-loop inevitably serve a mechanical purpose. Monaghan is lovely as always, but it is hard for a character to really connect with us when they’re buried under the dramatic irony of a time loop (which they’re unaware they’re in). Farmiga mostly exists as a face on a monitor, and never truly develops as a character. Only Wright manages to eek a memorable performance out of his largely perfunctory character (something he’s become quite a pro at). Gyllenhaal is well cast, though his sad puppy eyes and general demeanor seem better disposed to the film’s moments of comedy than to the dramatic ones. But even Colter is given very little time to properly develop as a character, so it is important that he be played by someone with an approachable likability. I don’t know that this film could have worked with an action star in the lead.
There is a lot I want to say about the ending of the film; the whole final third really. But it is impossible to do so even in an abstract way without giving too many hints as to the conclusion. I will say that I was left satisfied on an entertainment level, but a bit dissatisfied on a cerebral level. Source Code is a good movie. I was hoping it would be a great movie. I’m also hoping that I have lowered your expectations to a reasonable position. Because I want this film to do well. Duncan Jones deserves to be around for a long, long time.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars