With Moon, first-time director Duncan Jones set a high bar for himself, providing a stylized and thoughtful sci-fi flick that was as much a character drama and exploration of identity and self as a techy, genre film. With Source Code, Jones continues to look at some of those same themes and play with science fiction in a way which remains refreshing in the wake of the typically rote and thoughtless sci-fi offered to the masses. That said, the film is better in concept than it is on screen, though that is more the fault of the Ben Ripley’s script than it is of Jones, who wrote his own Moon screenplay.
Source Code begins with Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) waking up on a train across from Christina (Michelle Monaghan), and waking up across from someone who looks like Monaghan is not at all a bad way to wake up. He’s confused about how and why he’s on this train, particularly because Christina thinks he’s some else, someone she apparently knows. Several minutes later (*minor spoilers in the rest of this paragraph, but nothing that’s not in the not-too-spoilery trailer*), the train blows up. It’s here we learn that Colter is in the military and taking part in a new kind of Matrix-y investigation. Colter is helping investigate the possible terrorist origins of the explosion by being plugged into the Source Code, a techno-babble setup that repeatedly inserts him onto the train eight minutes before Kingdom Kablooey. From here, the film follows Colter repeatedly repeating those eight minutes, trying to figure out what happened while developing a crush on the now-presumably dead Christina. It also follows some real-world stuff outside of the Source Code between Colter and his military handlers, played by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright, who may have their own separate agenda.
To say much more about the story than this would be spoilers in the literal sense, though few of the plot points really come as a surprise, even when they’re not telegraphed ahead of time. It’s here, in the details of the story, that the film is the weakest. While the conceit offers an interesting amalgamation of several often-seen tropes, it fails to really explore some of the more interesting questions any reasonably smart viewer would have. In fact, during the post-screening Q&A, writer Ben Riley (who wrote the third and fourth Species sequels) was actually asked one of these questions, and to paraphrase another critic (who shall go unnamed because I don’t remember who said this too me), it looked Riley had never really thought about the question before. That’s disappointing, since the best science fiction stories are generally the ones that take things heads on. The film also opts not to say too much of the techno-babble behind the Source Code, which leaves it susceptible to a variety of nitpicks (though, to be fair, there’s surely be just as many nits with a more detailed exposition on the tech as well). Ultimately, the script boils down to something which bit off more than it was apparently capable of chewing.
That said, the movie is redeemed by Jones and his cast. Gyllenhaal is very likable, and while most of his performance is nothing out of the ordinary, one strong scene late in film reminds you why he’s more than just a pretty face. Monaghan is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s easy to see why Jake’s Colter wants to try to save her. Farmiga is dependable as always, and though Wright’s performance is a little unnecessarily affected, he serves his purpose. Meanwhile, Jones isn’t tasked with quite as much heavy lifting as he had in Moon, given that film’s bottled-up setting and focus on a single character(s), but the film is still well shot — it looks good, it’s paced well, and it’s able to shift back and forth in a smooth, unconfusing way. While Moon didn’t fully or satisfactorily explore all of the questions its concept raised either, it at least tried. Here, Jones is saddled with a script that doesn’t even try to do more than brush up against the questions it raises, and it hard not to wonder if a re-write by Jones wouldn’t have provided a more rewarding film. That said, although Source Code does not deliver the full extent of smarts or insight contained in the possibility of its premise, it’s neither a dumb nor bad film, particularly for science fiction (and for those who dislike or loathe sci-fi, it should be noted that it’s not heavily steeped in the genre once you get past the whole Source Code business) and although I wouldn’t recommend rushing out to see it in the theaters, you could do far worse once it’s released for at-home consumption. More than anything, though, the film keeps excitement alive for Duncan Jones as a filmmaker and suggests that he may be something greater than a one-hit wonder. We desperately more dependable genre guys like him out there.
Source Code premiered at South By Southwest 2011.