POSTED ON APRIL 6, 2011:
Director Duncan Jones' sci-fi thriller is a code worth cracking
The science fiction thriller is a favorite genre for the studios to release in early 2011. In the past month I've seen three of them to review in the pages of Urban Tulsa Weekly.
First was the dull The Adjustment Bureau, then came the surprisingly fun Limitless and this week it is Source Code, the second film from director Duncan Jones. Source Code, while not the most original of films, is a lean, fast-paced movie that offers enough twists, action and suspense to make most mainstream filmgoers happy.
Source Code begins with as many different kinds of aerial shots as you will likely ever see over the opening credits. Jones clearly wanted to hire out helicopters or planes to deliver an assortment of swooping shots of a train passing through a rural setting and the urban grid of Chicago cityscapes below. When the aerials finally end and we are transported inside a speeding commuter train, Jake Gyllenhaal wakes up confused by his surroundings. He claims he is an Army pilot named Colter Stevens, denying his identify as the "Sean" the pretty woman (Michelle Monaghan) sitting across from him believes him to be.
A few minutes later the train explodes.
Stevens does not die, but jolts to consciousness in a cramped, metallic, industrial capsule with a woman on a small screen talking to him, trying to calm him down and remind him who he is and why he is on the train. It seems he is on assignment in a "source code," an eight-minute window of time in the past that allows him to be transplanted into a host's body (a teacher named Sean). The goal is to find out who is responsible for the explosion before the bomber detonates a larger, more devastating dirty bomb that could kill millions. Stevens has eight minutes to solve the mystery.
He actually has more than eight minutes because every time his eight minutes are up and the train explodes, he doesn't die, but is displaced to his ramshackle capsule to be questioned. He continues to travel back and forth in time to the commuter train to find the bomber. With each trip he becomes more suspicious and paranoid of many of the train's passengers. With such a short window to find the bomber, eight minutes is not a long time, and Stevens' desperation increases with every failed attempt.
Source Code isnít a completely new take on the time travel concept; it borrows heavily from previous TV shows and movies as different as Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap. In an interesting parallel to director Duncan Jonesí first film, Moon, a key element of Source Code is the main characterís battle with himself, fighting the isolation and helplessness of being utterly alone.
Source Code isn't a completely new take on the time travel concept; it borrows heavily from previous TV shows and movies as different as Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap -- whose star, Scott Bakula, has a sly cameo in Source Code as if to acknowledge the debt owed to the cult TV show from 1989-1993. The film delivers with a story that allows Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley to unveil slivers of information slowly while pulling the viewer in. Having the audience and characters simultaneously learn what is happening is a wonderful hook that increases the tension as the film progresses.
Also effective is how the story exists on two levels -- the commuter train where Stevens tries to unravel the mystery of the bomber; and the capsule where Stevens attempts to decipher who and where he is. In both worlds, he is on his own, without help from the other passengers or military. In an interesting parallel to Jones' first film, Moon, a key element of Source Code is the main character's battle with himself, fighting the isolation and helplessness of being utterly alone. While this is a much more mainstream film, there are multiple connections between the two movies.
Jones nicely blends the technology on display from the two timelines. The low-tech capsule, with its exposed wiring and filthy surfaces play nicely off the gloss and sheen of the high-tech military center that Stevens communicates with in the "real" world. The lack of an actual villain for much of the movie might be a knock on the film for some, but I found it kind of refreshing. It was more interesting to me to have an anonymous bad guy who could be virtually anyone on the train as it taps into Stevens' paranoia in a way no single villain could have.
As with any other science fiction film that pares down the possibility of time travel into a believable framework for non-physicists, I have no idea if the concept of a "source code" is possible, despite the earnest speech given by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright). Struggling to contemplate all the time travel paradoxes a film like Source Code is ignoring, whilst also trying to follow the fast pace of the movie was making my brain hurt. I'm obviously not a physicist, so I just let myself be swallowed up in the story -- logic, reality and plot holes be damned. Forgetting about the myriad of problems associated with traveling in time will help your enjoyment of Source Code, unless you happen to be a quantum physicist and want to nitpick the actual science on display.
Jones (who happens to be David Bowie's son; couldn't go the entire review without mentioning that) tosses in slight doses of humor, romance and action to round out the story, but this is a sci-fi movie at its heart. I'm a sucker for time travel stories, so despite its familiar plot I enjoyed Source Code. It is an energetic, fast-paced, crisp thriller that is a welcome addition to 2011's favorite genre: the science fiction thriller.
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