If Groundhog Day was gang-banged by 24, The Matrix and Murder on the Orient Express, Source Code would be the outcome. Written by Ben Ripley, this sophomore effort of filmmaker Duncan Jones (Moon) is a completely original piece of science fiction which works so well due to a mind-bending plot and several clever narrative gyrations. Added to this, viewers are also given a reason to care, as the makers paid attention to developing sympathetic, warm characters. How ironic it is that every smart sci-fi released since mid-2010 is compared to Inception as if that movie was the be all and end all of the genre, yet Christopher Nolan's overrated Oscar nominee came up short in the character department.
Confused and disoriented, Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) wakes up inside the body of school teacher Sean Fentress on a commuter train bound for Chicago, but last he checked he was a marine fighting alongside his battalion in Afghanistan. Seated across from him is sweet-faced, flirtatious colleague Christina Warren (Monaghan), who seems to know him well. Eight minutes later, the train explodes and everyone is killed, forcing Colter back into a steel pod where he carries on video communication with army officer Goodwin (Farmiga). He soon learns that he is being placed into a phenomenon called the "source code", allowing him to take over the mind and body of Sean during his final eight minutes of life within an alternate reality. Handed the same eight brief minutes time and time again, Colter is instructed to investigate the passengers in order to deduce the identity of the terrorist bomber and hopefully prevent future attacks. The more time he spends in Sean's body, the more determined he becomes to find a way to save Christina and the rest of the passengers from their untimely fates.
Like Christopher Nolan did with Memento, Source Code initially refuses to provide the same information that Colter lacks, thereby placing a viewer in the same bewildered mindset as the protagonist who has to rely on a computer monitor through which Goodwin instructs him and assures him that his confusions and questions are outside the scope of the mission. Luckily, Source Code is well-paced and often intriguing since only tantalisingly small pieces of information are provided. Upon close inspection, there are common threads running throughout both Source Code and 2009's Moon. On top of being intelligent, both films spotlight a protagonist trapped in isolation, and both films explore provocative identity-related questions. Though Source Code is more mainstream than Moon, it is an excellent breath of fresh air. In an era governed by mindless CGI-laden spectacles, it is indeed heart-warming to see the work of a thoughtful filmmaker with original ideas and an innovative vision.
Questions arise throughout Source Code. What would happen if Colter finds the bomber and prevents the bombing from happening inside the source code? Would it trigger an alternate reality or affect present-day? For a 90-minute film that revolves around the same limited timeframe for most of its running time, it's enthralling to watch as Colter's different actions throw the source code happenings on a different course but ultimately lead to the same general outcome in the "real world". The question as to whether the doomed passengers can be saved will also keep your interest levels high. And the ending provides a thought-provoking rumination on the notion of an infinite number of alternate universes. On the topic of the ending, it's outstanding. As well as raising challenging questions, the film closes on a satisfying yet unpredictable note that in no way sacrifices the integrity of the piece and is not a copout. Additionally, it reinforces an impassioned message: people should wake up and stop taking their lives for granted.
What is also impressive about Source Code is how competently the film has been crafted despite this only being Duncan Jones' second feature film effort. The son of David Bowie shows a gift for generating the same brand of energy and excitement that makes a film like Speed stand the test of time without coming off as derivative or forgettable. Jones and his crew did a fine job of making every frame count (thus adhering to the film's own tagline "Make Every Second Count"), and they never indulged in action, explosions or overblown visual effects for the sake of it. Other technical contributions to the film are top-notch as well, particularly Don Burgess' expert lensing, Chris Bacon's pulse-pounding score and Paul Hirsch's rhythmic editing. Only a few logical errors hinder this otherwise fine movie, such as a scene where Colter jumps off a moving train onto concrete without breaking any bones.
As Colter Stevens, Jake Gyllenhaal is solidly engaging; effortlessly providing an affable protagonist for viewers to latch onto and care about. Gyllenhaal's greatest success is the way he was able to meld desperation, intensity and contemplative pathos, not to mention he imbued his character with warmth and amiability to help viewers truly care about his circumstances. In supporting roles, Michelle Monaghan is well-nuanced and charming as Colter's love interest, while the boundlessly talented Vera Farmiga provides a great deal of personality. Jeffrey Wright has copped a lot of criticism for his performance as the creator of the source code, but this reviewer found him to be sublime - he nailed the "corporate douchebag" mentality, as well as coming across as an intelligent human being whose mind runs at a mile a minute.
Expertly written and crafted, Source Code is extremely fast-paced, yet it also spends a sufficient amount of time on dialogue to explain the science behind the central conceit. 90 minutes of Source Code is neither too long nor too short, and it is easy to find yourself invested in the story and the characters up until the very end. Source Code indeed confirms that Duncan Jones is a real talent to watch, demonstrating that the director has a lot of additional filmmaking muscles he did not have the chance to flex in his debut.