Friday, April 1, 2011

Source Code

Review by Bob Ignizio

The basic premise of SOURCE CODE, the new film from MOON director (and David Bowie's son, I'm contractually obligated to mention) Duncan Jones could perhaps be described as GROUND HOG DAY if it were a thriller instead of a comedy. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an Air Force veteran who inexplicably finds his consciousness inside another man's body. He's on board a speeding train and sitting opposite Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who he seems to have some kind of relationship with.

After eight confusing minutes, the train explodes and Stevens awakes in a capsule where his handler (Vera Farmiga) explains, at least to some degree, what is happening. The train explosion happened earlier that day and was merely the precursor for another, bigger terrorist attack. A scientist (Jeffrey Rush) has developed a process whereby Colter can experience the last eight minutes worth of memories of one of the victims, said victim's brain being used as sort of a “black box”. Now he must go back in and keep reliving those eight minutes until he gets the information needed to stop the next attack.
I'll leave it to the movie to explain the pseudo-scientific details of how this process works. Suffice it to say that it comes across as plausible enough, at least in the context of the film. It's also kind of a McGuffin, as is the whole thriller plot, to a large degree. The real heart of the story lies underneath these surface layers, but to reveal any more would be unconscionable.

Jones uses this premise as a launching pad to explore some of the same themes found in MOON about the nature of identity and what it means to be human. In addition, SOURCE CODE also deals with issues surrounding the way we treat our veterans in a surprisingly poignant way. Like some of the best science fiction, this is done subtly through allegory rather than by ramming the message down the viewer's throat. 

For all its high-tech thriller trappings, SOURCE CODE is a very human film with far more drama than action. We do care about whether Gyllenhaal's character will be able to thwart the terrorist attack, but we care more about what will happen to him personally, and whether the laws of quantum physics might allow him to find happiness with Monaghan.

SOURCE CODE is a little more of an ensemble piece than MOON's one-man show, but Gyllenhaal still has to carry a lot of the film's weight on his shoulders. He does so splendidly, playing a character who has to shift between being the reluctant hero just starting to fall in love with Monaghan, and a confused, frightened young man who just wants to know what's happening to him. Monaghan, Farmiga, and Wright provide sturdy support, and even the bit players sharing the train ride are well cast.

Puzzle movies centered around gimmicky plot twists that call Reality Itself into question, like the over-rated INCEPTION, have become a staple at the multiplex in the last decade or so. At first glance it might seem as if SOURCE CODE belongs in their company, but this is a much more straight-forward movie. It certainly has a few surprises, but it's not trying to trick its audience. It raises questions and then actually answers them in an entertaining and satisfying manner. We never feel like Jones is throwing shocking revelations at us just for the sake of doing it. Everything flows organically from the characters and story.

Although the script is credited to another writer, one has to wonder if Jones didn't do a fair amount of rewriting. It just seems to have too much of the same voice as MOON to merely be his directorial style coming through. Or maybe it was just a case of serendipity with the right script winding up with the right director. Either way, it comes off perfectly. Where most Hollywood science fiction films these days are mindless, soulless affairs, Jones has now made two in a row that are both intelligent and emotionally moving. 4 out of 4 stars.

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