Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, Michelle Monaghan
With just two feature films to his credit, director Duncan Jones is easily one of the most exciting young talents in the science fiction genre. He's a filmmaker who favours story and character over explosions (though, being about an exploding train, Source Code does have its share of explosions) and manages to make slick, good looking films without sacrificing the story's soul. Admittedly, I enjoyed his debut, Moon, a lot more than his follow-up, Source Code, but there's no doubt in my mind that as Jones continues to develop as an artist and expand his career, he'll continue to make smart, interesting movies - something which I think we can all agree we need a lot more of.
The premise of Source Code involves army helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), who wakes up on a commuter train which soon blows up, sending him back to "reality," in which he learns that he's participating in an experimental project called "Source Code." Within the project Colter is sent to an alternate timeline and into the body of a man named Sean, who was on the train that exploded, so that he can discover who planted the bomb before a second bomb can be set off in the real timeline. Two of the people running Source Code, Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the scientist who invented the device that sends Colter back, explain to him that he can't save the people on the train - the train really has exploded in real time and he's merely being sent back to an "afterimage" that will allow him to experience the last eight minutes on the train before it explodes. All he can hope to accomplish is the use of those eight minutes to prevent the second attack in real time.
Colter is sent back to the alternate reality over and over again as Goodwin and Rutledge pressure him to uncover more about what has happened and why. Eventually, he figures out the identity of the bomber. He also, however, discovers that in the real world he's officially dead, what remains of his body kept on life support so that what remains of his brain can be used for Source Code. Angered by his discovery, Colter demands to be taken off life support once he's completed the mission, something which Rutledge agrees to but has no intention of following through on. He also refuses to allow Colter to return to the alternate timeline once more in order, for his own peace of mind, to save the people on the train but Goodwin is a little more compassionate, allowing for a slight end-of-movie twist.
For the most part, Source Code is a strong film. Like Moon it mixes a somewhat dark humor into its story - Colter gets understandably frustrated fairly quickly and for a while it looks like each session on the train is going to involve him punching or otherwise assaulting people just because it's quicker that way - and involves a protagonist pushed to the limits of his sanity and learning that the truth about his existence has been hidden from him. Gyllenhaal does well with the character and conveys a solid sense of Colter's personality, which is no easy feat when you consider that the character is in an almost constant state of flux. Wright and Farmiga also fare well as the villain and saviour, respectively, but Michelle Monaghan is a bit wasted in her role as the love interest.
The premise of the film is complex and interesting but, while the screenplay by Ben Riply is intellectually ambitious, the execution isn't always equal to the project's ideas. With a story like this you have to enter it willing to suspend disbelief to a certain point just to accept the premise, but sometimes that's asking a lot. For example, the Source Code project's potential as a means to prevent terrorist attacks seems increasingly specious the more you think about it. One of the things that defines most, if not all, terrorist attacks is the element of surprise, so the idea that the person who blew up the train would send a warning that he had another attacked planned for later in the day feels a bit convenient as far as the plot goes, as does the fact that the attacker was working alone to accomplish two coordinated attacks.
The happy ending also raises a few questions, such as how can Colter exist simultaneously in one timeline in both Sean's body and his own, and what happens to the real Sean once his life is spared in the alternate timeline now that Colter has taken over his body? Most high concept stories leave lingering questions, of course, but I think that the film would have been better served by a more sombre ending that allowed the dead to remain dead. Still, despite a few minor issues, Source Code is a solidly entertaining film worth catching up with on DVD. And if you haven't seen Moon yet, now is a good time for a double feature.