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Film Review: Source Code

Source Code (2011; Directed by Duncan Jones)

In the opening minutes of Duncan Jones’s Source Code, the camera sweeps above Chicago and its environs, tracking the progress of a commuter train from the metropolis’ suburbs into its core. The arterial transportations network of roads, tracks, rivers divides the great sprawling metropolis into a grid, something resembling a circuit board of a computer or a large-scale rough model of a human brain. An insistent, suspenseful musical cue, like a Hitchcock score for the iPhone age, thrusts and parries in the speakers.

Flash to the familiar face of Jake Gyllenhaal, asleep against the window of the closely-watched CCR train. The darting scan motion of his eyeballs as he awakes indicates clearly that he perceives something is not right with his surroundings. He doesn’t recognize them, doesn’t know the pretty young woman (Michelle Monaghan) sitting across from him speaking to him with flirtatious semi-intimate familiarity, doesn’t recall the faces of the regular commuters in his car. The woman (he eventually discovers that she’s named Christina) keeps calling his Sean, even though he insists that his name is Captain Colter Stevens and he flies helicopters for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. The ID in his wallet supports her position, and a glance in the bathroom mirror does as well: the face reflected back to him is not his own. Just as he’s beginning to find his bearings, however, a fiery explosion rips through the train, killing him and everyone else on board.

Following this irresistible suspense-film setup, Captain Stevens awakes in a cold metal capsule, something like an old lunar module with even more basic technology. He’s strapped down and disoriented, and a military officer named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) is speaking to him from a video screen, feeding him a playing-card-centric recall code. Goodwin and her boss Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) are unwilling to give Stevens any details on his situation, simply repeating that he is on a vital mission and must identify the person who bombed the train in order to save more lives from an imminent terrorist threat. He is “sent back” to the train again and again, each time with only eight minutes to track down the bomber, but Stevens chafes at being kept in the dark about the nature of his situation and tries to work it out on certain passes rather than attempting to ID the culprit.

Goodwin and Rutledge finally, reluctantly debrief the soldier, revealing that he was badly wounded in a copter crash and kept barely alive by their secret military agency. They have connected his brain to the mostly-dead cortex of Sean Fentress, a run-of-the-mill teacher who was one of the victims of the Chicago train bombing that same morning but whose physical and mental profile is a match for that of Stevens. The final eight-minute stretch of Fentress’s life as stored in his memory banks is referred to by Rutledge as a “source code”, which can be accessed and interacted with by Stevens as many times as is necessary, but (as far as Rutledge is aware) cannot be changed. Stevens cannot save Fentress or Christina or anyone else on that train, but he can do whatever is necessary to discover who blew it up before the suspect detonates a dirty bomb in Chicago that could kill millions.

Certain facile reviews upon Source Code‘s release dubbed it a sci-fi thriller version of Groundhog Day, and while that gets at the essentials of the concept, it doesn’t do justice to the cleverness or the tenacity of its dramatic tension (Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train and Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express are also reference points, and The Manchurian Candidate is given a nod with the card-related mental programming). Stevens’ actions alter the unfolding events in the source code each time, but it resets like a tape at the end of each eight-minute period, with only Stevens remembering what happened in that run-through. Ben Ripley’s script plants seemingly incidental details in the opening run through the code that Stevens follows on later runs, clues that are rabbit holes to alternate realities. A tote bag, a cell phone, or a lost wallet can all be portals to tangential possibilities. Source Code is not fiendishly complex, but it requires some mental exertion to keep up, always a welcome feature of a genre piece of this type.

This is ideal material for Gyllenhaal, who excels at being adrift in unfamiliar surroundings onscreen and finding his way gradually, awkwardly, but eventually asserting himself physically over the situation. He has good chemistry with his dual female foils, with Monaghan’s Christina ever game for his seemingly impulse schemes as “Sean” and Farmiga’s iron facade of officiousness incrementally penetrated by his dogged pursuit of answers. Wright is a little more baroque, with Rutledge’s evasiveness, scientific arrogance, and unexplained, symbolically obscure use of a crutch to move around his facility. There are plenty of mediocre supporting actors, as well as a couple of odd cameos, including Russell Peters as a comedian on the train and Scott Bakula’s disembodied voice as Stevens’ father.

The direction of Duncan Jones, behind the helm of the acclaimed cerebral sci-fi effort Moon and David Bowie’s son, vacillates between inspired and workmanlike, but the often electrifying, imaginative writing redeems any artistic hiccups. If the film falls short in reaching the goals it sets out to achieve, a considerable spoiler is required to discuss it. If what you’ve read thus far sounds of interest and you haven’t seen Source Code, stop reading now and ignore the last paragraphs.

If you’re still with me, here’s the thing: when Stevens succeeds in preventing the bombing, saving the life of “Sean”, Christina and everyone else on the train, the limits of the source code are transcended. Despite Rutledge’s assurances that Stevens cannot go beyond the eight-minute limit of the system and that the technology does not contain a kernel of possibility of changing the past, that’s exactly what ends up happening. Source Code is speculative fiction and it’s a classic imaginative leap. I get where Ripley and Jones are going with it, it’s not an ineffective twist in the narrative, and it’s nicely metaphorized visually by a closing visit by Stevens-as-Sean and Christina to Anish Kapoor’s beguilingly mirrored public sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, the Cloud Gate.

But there’s little offered up to explain how a repeating loop of linked consciousness between two men’s minds overleaps mental boundaries into altering actual reality. The technical details of the source code device are left fuzzy, but this climactic turn is almost too fuzzy, too speculative. It outstrips even the softly-defined rules of this fictional frame by a margin that may well be too great, and credulity is duly strained. But do feel free to give this otherwise strong film a try, and see if you find yourself in agreement.


Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. June 15, 2016 at 7:21 pm

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