Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up to find himself on a commuter train in the body of a man named Sean Fentress. Eight minutes later, the train explodes into a ball of flame. Stevens then awakes, finding that he is the subject of a military experiment of a project called Source Code, which allows the user to go into the last eight minutes of a person’s memory. In this case, Sean Fentress was a passenger on a train that was destroyed in a terrorist attack, and Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and the Code’s creator, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), are trying to find out who bombed the train in order to stop a second imminent attack. As Stevens is continually sent back into the last eight minutes of Fentress’ life, he becomes increasingly aware that Goodwin and Rutledge are withholding information from him about his predicament and the Code’s true purpose, and he tries harder each time to save Sean’s companion Christina (Michelle Monaghan) from her own death.
Film: Source Code
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
Written by: Ben Ripley
Directed by: Duncan Jones
Genre: Science Fiction, Mystery, Drama, Head Trip
Rating: 8 out of 10 / B+
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
“Is it getting warm in here?”
Duncan Jones’ first film, Moon, was a gorgeously low-key, cerebral science fiction film that never treated its audience like it was stupid. Happily, Source Code proves that it wasn’t a fluke. Jones and writer Ben Ripley have crafted a tight, Twilight Zone-inspired sci-fi film that doesn’t rely on exploding robots or asteroids for its drama. At its core is a trio of twisting mysteries—who boomed the train, why is Colter the Code’s subject, and what is the Code’s purpose—whose resolutions are never too obvious and that effortlessly propel the film forward, even when it loops around itself. He forces you to pay attention and be alert for every little detail and makes the viewer as much of a detective as Colter himself.
With a small and able cast, Jones manages to keep the film focused squarely on the human characters and not on the science aspects of the story. It’s this aspect that keeps the film riveting and invests the audience in its resolution. Jake Gyllenhaal is a great leading man, able to do both the action and dramatic lifting necessary for the character. The evolution of Colter’s character is wonderful to behold, from dazed and confused to confident and commanding. Vera Farmiga is similarly impressive, an able foil for Colter, evolving in almost the opposite direction. At first, she seems a steely and unfeeling military operative, but as the film goes on, you can see cracks appear in the facade. Farmiga is brilliant at letting the warm aspects of an otherwise icy character slowly peek through the surface. Jeffrey Wright is great, if a bit too theatrical, but it can’t be denied that he makes a great military jerkwad. Michelle Monaghan, finally, is a great romantic interest for Colter, with a natural and unaffected charm. It’s easy to see how Colter could so quickly fall for her.
I think your aim would be better if you took your shirt off, Mr. Gyllenhaal.
Jones keeps a good, tight focus on the action. There are few superfluous characters, and he avoids going through the entire eight minutes of the Code’s scope too many times. Once again, he assumes the audience is paying attention and begins to focus only on highlights or changes in each of Colter’s run-throughs. The tone is set immediately from the opening sequence, a slow pan over the skyline and streets of Chicago accompanied by Chris Bacon‘s ominous, Bartok-influenced score.
However, like every story involving time travel that isn’t an episode of Futurama, the film’s handling of both time travel and quantum mechanics raises a number of logical and plot-related holes. Until the film’s final scenes, the handling of the Code doesn’t make a tremendous amount of logical sense, and a substantial amount of suspended disbelief is necessary. Things begin to make more sense during the film’s climax, although the film up to that point can seem frustrating and full of Star Trek-grade technobabble that can distance the viewer from the human connection Jones is trying to make. The final scenes also develop a far too syrupy an emotional resonance which seems slightly forced.
Almost more than most sci-fi films, Source Code is a great example of “your mileage may vary.” If you can overlook the pseudoscientific explanations of the Source Code itself—and I highly recommend that you do—you’ll be treated to a trippy, head-spinning sci-fi drama with amazingly organic, human characters at its core. While it introduces layers upon layers of reality, and while it relies on a dubiously logical plot device, its focus is always on the human element. Jones has done two compelling, intelligent sci-fi films in a row, and here’s hoping it’s the start of a long, prosperous career. Once you log into Source Code, you’ll never take your eyes off the screen. You’ll never solve the mystery if you do.
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and can do a lot in eight minutes.