Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie…no, really) has already made a huge impact with just two films. His first film, Moon, was a smart, funny science fiction film about the implications of cloning and its effect on the human psyche.
Now here’s Source Code, an equally smart science fiction film about virtual simulations and parallel universes. What makes it so intriguing is how the film consistently keeps its ace up its sleeve. The film manages to cover a wide range of topics in its relatively short running time. Plus, it manages to have a glossy presentation that will make it more accessible to a mass audience. Some people will call this a hindrance. I say it is good for a film this smart to try to include as many people as possible.
The plot involves an Army Pilot named Colter Stevens, who wakes up on a train. He has no idea how he got there, and the woman sitting across from him (Michelle Monaghan) thinks he is a different man. A bomb goes off, and Stevens is seemingly killed – only to wake up at an air force base where a woman named Goodwin (Vera Farminga) explains what is happening. The train explosion really did occur, and the base has managed to use a computer program to recreate the last few moments of one of the passengers. There has been threats of a second, larger attack, and Stevens must use the program to determine who the bomber is so that the attack can be stopped.
I had to be very careful writing the preceding paragraph. The Source Code takes so many twists and turns in its narrative that the slightest wrong word can give everything away. That is part of the appeal of the film. It barely gives any clues as to what is coming next, but it also does not leave many narratives gaps or lapses of logic. Ben Riley has written a very tight script.
Source Code also does what the best science fiction is meant to do. It is less about the fantastical settings than it is about the human condition. Think less Robert Heinlen and more Jorge Luis Borges. Source Code is not about parallel dimensions or alternate time lines. It is about how far people will go for a chance at redemption and many other political themes (if I say what, I will spoil the ending, but you will certainly know them when you see them.)
Jake Gyllenhaal was perfectly cast as the lead. The character must evolve from confused to world-weary while everyone else remains the same. Gyllenhaal relives these moments again and again, but everyone else remains the same. Yes, it is like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, but it takes a certain kind of actor to pull that off. Stevens never becomes smug. He also starts to genuinely care for these people (even if he knows their fates) and seems hesitant to bother them. I don’t really know who else could have pulled it off, but Gyllenhaal is the reason the film works so well.
Now, there are some gaps in the film about the experiment. For one, the whole “source code” is seemingly built from someone’s memories. How, then, are they able to get a complete map of that time frame? After all, Stevens interacts with items that must be built far beyond memory. Perhaps they are recreating a specific universe? How can they do that from memories alone, especially one memory? The ending raises far more questions (I am convinced it is not a parallel universe but an allegory or a hallucination, but I am getting ahead of myself) than answers. Also, the people in charge of the mission keep saying that they are on the clock, but very little is actually made of this fact. Did the terrorist send threats, stating the exact time and place he would strike next? Wouldn’t that piece of evidence help in apprehending him more than this risky venture? Did the FBI decide to knock off early for drinks?
But never mind. These items never threaten to ruin the film and, even these questions were answered, then the film could not arrive at its final message. That is the most important part. After all, cloning the way it was described in Moon is also impossible, but that did not stop Jones from making a good film. Source Code works in the same way.
Source Code is, quite simply, a great film. I may have to remember it for my “ten best list” in December. Sure, the ending leaves more questions than answers, but that is part of the point. It is a very smart, very entertaining film that hopefully will find a mass audience. Luckily, people are responding to it on a relatively large-scale for such a complex film. Perhaps there is hope for audiences after all.