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Rapid Review: Source Code

April 3, 2011

Note:  MILD spoilers contained below, although nothing that has not been given away in various television ads in the past few weeks…

The tag line for Source Code in the various commercials that have been running rampant across television screens the past few weeks boils down to  “What would you do if you knew you only had 1 minute to live?”  My quip to my husband was, “Make out with Jake Gyllenhaal”.  This is actually  misleading since Jake Gyllenhaal is definitely not my type. He’s a little too obviously good-looking in that boyish way.   In Source Code, the lucky task of being the love interest for JG falls to Michelle Monaghan, who is rapidly becoming the go-to gal for plucky action sidekick chick roles.

Source Code is directed by Duncan Jones, who made one of the best (and most overlooked) movies of 2009, the haunting and interesting Moon, which contained a star-making and sincere performance by Sam Rockwell as the “lone” caretaker of an isolated commercial space outpost who had to deal with various demons both real and imagined.  It was a movie as much about human nature as the it was the science behind great fiction.  It also was a film that kept me thinking about it long after the credits had rolled, which is a unique feat.  Something about that movie’s touching sadness stuck with me for days after watching it.  That’s the sign of a pretty fabulous debut film.

Captain Stevens talks with his "handler"

Source Code has the honor of being the second biggest “fresh” debut on Rotten Tomatoes after Chris Nolan’s Memento. That’s not a bad second place slot.  I would even venture to say that a career path such as Nolan’s would be within Duncan Jones’s scope of interest and depth.

Source Code is a bigger budget foray into mainstream sci-fi, but it is still a compelling look at the workings of the human machine and how our memory functions.  Most truly great sci-fi films are less about the science of space and more about humanity’s natural progression towards that which we don’t understand, but yearn to control the power of.  In this case, that power is the brain’s capacity to shape, harness and ultimately change memory and reality in order to influence events, and Gyllenhaal’s Captain Coulter Stevens is assigned the daunting task of inhabiting a stranger’s body in order to unravel a mystery behind a train’s explosion and its possible far-reaching consequences.  He must, in a sci-fi thriller twist on Groundhog Day, re-live these 8 minutes over and over again until he finds the necessary puzzle pieces to “solve” the great mystery of a terrorist’s grand plan.  There’s of course, more to it than that.  There are, for example, trust issues involving the military puppeteers behind Coulter’s mission,  questions about the real-world consequences of the project itself…the list goes on. 

heart to heart in a crisis

The plot wants to be both sci-fi yarn and action adventure blockbuster, and it succeeds on both levels if you can master that sense of disbelief you must conjure up whenever characters must explain (or act like they comprehend) the elements of science behind this inhabiting and manipulating of “memory-scapes”.  In order to make this idea remotely plausible, you’d better leave your best instincts and grand questions on the back burner.  Even the character in the film who should readily be able to explain such things is “conveniently” called away in the middle of a ground-breaking speech that would no doubt change modern science as we know it.  The science is really just a platform for a well-written thriller penned ably by young screenwriter Ben Ripley, who understands that urgency and mystical elements of fate and human destiny are key in an audience’s buy-in to a great sci-fi action yarn.

Jones’s thoughtful and precise directing style is a good fit for a thinking man’s action film, and he here makes good use of the obvious but intriguing parallel between confined spaces (like the train car, Stevens’s real-body location and the brain itself) and the explosions caused when things (both physically and mentally) cannot be contained.   The script allows our hero to fail just as often as he succeeds, which is an unusual twist on the standard boy-makes-good action hero story.  It’s easier to relate to a guy that doesn’t always get it right the first go around.

racing for clues

The plot itself does try a little too hard to venture into cerebral Inception/Dark City territory as far as inventing a new “twist” on old sci-fi elements with a grand “what does it all mean” theme about the human consciousness and our ability to change our fate, but it is vastly entertaining  as a taut and effective thriller.

Gyllenhaal is an able leading man who is rapidly growing into himself as he ages.  He usually works best when his character is a little off-kilter or quirky (see: Donnie Darko, Zodiac).  Otherwise, his rugged good looks tend to overshadow his talents when he chooses the standard,  run- of -the- mill everyman roles.  It’s tough to play a decent, hard-working good guy who has to spend most of the film inhabiting the body of  someone else, but he manages to be believable enough to have you rooting for him in the end.

Both Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright shine in integral  roles, and Michelle Monaghan’s damsel dealing with an unusual situation does the best she can with the standard love interest role she’s handed.

Overall, Source Code is a pleasant surprise from a director who is just at the beginning of an interesting career.  Jones has an eye for a good script, meaningful dialogue and earnest actors who succeed with the material.  Here’s hoping his next film is as interesting and fun as this one.

Overall Grade:  A-

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