Film Review: Source Code

Film review by Andrew Johnson for CaryCitizen.

Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
Runtime: 93 minutes
Rating: PG-13, for some violence and language.
The Bottom Line: A refreshingly original sci-fi flick that adds time travel to a traditional detective premise with thrilling results.

Two years ago, filmmaker Duncan Jones burst onto the scene with the sci-fi character study Moon, a minimalist one-man show starring Sam Rockwell as a lone mineral extractor on the moon who discovers he might not be entirely alone.  Though it was made for only around $5 million, Jones brought enough directing chops to the film to make it look much more expensive, and it soon spread by word-of-mouth among genre fans to become a sleeper hit.  People began to wonder: if he can do so much with so little, what will happen when a mainstream studio actually gives him a sizable budget?

Well, now we know.  This weekend Jones’ sophomore effort Source Code is released into more theaters than Moon saw in its entire theatrical run.  Part time-travel film and part political thriller, the film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Colter Stevens, a marine who suddenly finds himself strapped himself to a mysterious machine in a metal capsule.  He is informed by his commanding officer (played by Vera Farmiga) that he is part of the Source Code, a secret government program that can transport his mind into the body of another person eight minutes before they are killed.  His mission is to discover the identity of a terrorist before a train is bombed, killing dozens of people.  Every eight minutes the train explodes and Stevens is forced to start over from the beginning.  When he presses his commanding officers for more details regarding the program, their answers are vague if not outright hidden, and he begins to suspect the Source Code program might have more sinister consequences than it first appears.

Did you get all that?

If not, don’t worry.  The film handles all the exposition quickly and efficiently, showing rather than telling.  We’re thrust into the action along with our protagonist, which is a brilliant decision by screenwriter Ben Ripley in that it immediately connects audiences with him emotionally.  Like him, we are initially confused, but as he starts to put the pieces together, so do we.  His small victories become our own.  Unlike Inception, which at times needed to talk down to its audience and hurriedly explain just-what-all-this-crazy-stuff-is, Source Code treats viewers with the same amount of respect it treats its hero, allowing us to figure things out on our own all in good time.

As with Moon, Jones squeezes every cent out of his budget, even though here he’s working with far more than he had before.  The camera travels down and around the train car into a fireball, slow-motion is used to great effect, and there’s more than one primary cast member.  Story-wise, the film zips between timelines and new twists are constantly revealed.  Compared to his previous work, it feels downright epic.

Gyllenhaal gives a convincingly conflicted performance as a man who wants to fight for answers but also remain loyal to a government that denies them.  Michelle Monaghan brings decent chemistry as a potential love interest, but thankfully the film spends more time focusing on the intricacies of its time-twisting plot than on an overly-sentimental romance.  The wild card in the cast is Jeffrey Wright, who plays the head of the Source Code program.  He walks with a cane, tinkers with tech, and speaks with the cadence of a James Bond villain.  It’s arguably too campy of a performance for Source Code’s more grounded sensibilities – the film is in many ways a serious critique of the war on terror – but Wright does it so confidently it’s as effectively unsettling as it is potentially comedic.

If there’s anything wrong with Source Code, it’s that its resolution doesn’t quite live up to the mind trip that preceded it.  The concluding scenes feel a bit too familiar, and the final twist a bit too forced, for it to ultimately be completely satisfying.  Even so, it’s nice to see a mainstream spring tentpole film with major stars that isn’t a formulaic romantic comedy, a superhero movie, or the kind of action movie with more balls than brains.  In a time when Hollywood seems to be churning out even more conveyor-belt dreck than usual, Source Code is a refreshingly original and compelling outing at the movies.  It proves that Moon was not a fluke; Duncan Jones is a talent with bright future ahead of him. One can only hope to see more innovative filmmakers like Jones get their chance to shine.

Andrew Johnson is a freelance writer and the host of MovieChatter, a weekly film discussion podcast.  He also blogs about film atThe Kuleshov Effect.  Of all the opinions out there about the current state of cinema, he swears that his are the right ones.