DIRECTOR’S IMPRESSIVE GRASP OF SCIENCE FICTION PROPELS “SOURCE CODE” TO INNOVATIVE HEIGHTS
Surely, there’s some genius thinking in Duncan Jones’ “Source Code.” With a plot that combines “Groundhog’s Day” and “The Adjustment Bureau,” the film is a deftly-made thriller that establishes a credible knowledge of great science fiction.
The story chronicles the bizarre mission of Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), who we meet on a Chicago commuter train. He has no idea how he got there. Sitting across from him is Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who’s in the middle of a deep conversation. Yet he doesn’t recognize her. Stevens excuses himself to the train bathroom – where he sees his face in the mirror. It’s not his face. It’s the face of a man named Sean Fentress. Before Stevens/Fentress can comprehend this revaluation, the train explodes and kills everyone aboard.
Stevens awakes in a strange small capsule, where – via a video com-link with government scientists Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) – he learns his mission’s details. The simplified mission is finding the bomber who blew up the commuter train before another bomb kills millions of Chicagoans in six hours. The unsimplified version is Stevens’ consciousness is being sent into the now-dead Sean Fentress’ harvested brain in a kind of sense memory, where he relives the last eight minutes of the dead man’s life before the explosion. Stevens must relive Sean’s last minutes over and over again until he finds the bomber and helps the government stop the impending attack. This program is called the source code.
Rest assured that there are many additional elements involved (including a pretty substantial twist), but the key is Stevens falls in love with Christina. While Dr. Rutledge continuously tells him that the source code isn’t time travel and therefore he can’t change the past, Stevens is determined to save Christina – even though she is already dead.
“Source Code” clearly understands and revels in its genre’s required intricacies. The explained scientific logic is surprisingly well-stated enough to allow suspension of disbelief, which obviously takes some serious thinking. The scientific explanation is on par with “Star Trek” lore in making the impossible seem possible – at least for 93 minutes.
The film also shows the creative journey of a writer/director on his way of becoming a directorial legend. This is only Jones’ second film.
Jones’ debut “Moon” was not only one of the best films of 2008 and showcased one of Sam Rockwell’s best performances to date, it also managed to be one of the most original science fiction films since “Aliens.” It was enough to catch Hollywood’s attention and, with “Source Code,” we get a glimmer of why Jones’ talent was noticed in the first place. But while “Source Code” may match “Moon” in concept, it assuredly doesn’t in emotion.
One inferiority between the two films is “Source Code” has nowhere near the emotional heft or sense of character that made “Moon” such a great film. It’s strange that Gyllenhaal and Monaghan play such average characters (Gyllenhaal has only one trait that defines him – his wish to apologize to his father for their last heated conversation – and Monaghan doesn’t have enough time to be anything outside the traditional love interest) considering Jones created an Oscar-worthy signature role for Sam Rockwell in “Moon.” But even so, the characters still manage to keep us invested. Even while being nowhere near as challenging as his debut, Jones does undertake some pretty profound science fiction ideas.
What makes “Source Code” so fascinating is how erratically the ending can be interpreted. I can’t tell you whether I liked it or not – I’m still mulling it over. The ending is either one of the most faulty jumps in logic I’ve ever seen or one of the most ambitious science fiction concepts tackled in years.
“Source Code” may not be the finest work we’ve seen from Jones, but it is proof that Jones is a director we’ll be hearing from for many years to come. We need more directors like Duncan Jones. Directors from humble beginnings that never let big budgets or hefty paychecks distract them from being smarter-than-average storytellers. We only have a handful of people like this today. People that never lost sight of the power of the story or became lazy in their times of success. Jones may very well join this rare elite. His storytelling tenacity is similar to Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight” and “Inception”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Reservoir Dogs” and “Inglorious Basterds”) in how they all have, in some way, mastered their niche.
While the mystery element of “who bombed the train” is trivial, neither the actors nor the characters manage to stand out at all amid the high concept of the plot, and several overambitious elements threaten to overwhelm mainstream audiences, “Source Code” is the first truly decent film of 2011 in offering a genuinely novel concept full of freshness and original thought.