Source Code, director Duncan Jones's second feature film, is patently bigger, faster, slicker and more mainstream than his impressive debut film Moon, but it's a work of similar intelligence, themes and interests. Jones didn't write the sci-fi thriller, and Ben Ripley's screenplay pointedly echoes Groundhog Day, Déjá Vu, Frequency, Avatar, "Quantum Leap" and vehicular thrillers from Speed to Unstoppable—but you can understand why the screenplay immediately made people think of the writer-director of Moon, and why Jones couldn't resist the project.
One could almost regard Moon as a warm-up for Source Code. Both films center on a solitary grunt who's a cog in a much larger machine—an isolated man squirreled away in a cold, metallic space, unable to contact his loved ones, unsure exactly what's going on, caught up in the seemingly impossible circumstances of a mission he doesn't entirely understand. Both films raise questions of identity, memory, and human dignity in dehumanizing systems.
Neither film is perfect, and while Moon's charm lay in part in its appealing modesty, Source Code ambitiously bites off a bit more than it can chew. On the other hand, Source Code delivers the plot twists and revelations that never quite materialized in the low-key Moon, and Jones proves along the way that he can handle a more complex story with a sizable cast and multiple locations. Oh, and like Moon, Source Code is more enjoyable the less you know going in (and many reviews give away too much).
Here is what can safely be said. Air Force captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot and Afghanistan vet, wakes up one fine morning on a train in another man's body. Opposite him is a lovely woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) carrying on a conversation with him as if he were someone else. Colter's confusion and anxiety lasts for eight minutes, at which point an explosion rips through the train—and Colter wakes up strapped into a capsule or module of some kind.
It's a scenario that Colter will play out again and again and again, eight minutes at a time. Each time events on the train play out differently, yet the end is always the same. Is it a training simulation? Mind control? Time travel? Answers are slow in coming, though Colter desperately tries to grill a female officer named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) observing and instructing him via computer monitor.
With calm authority, Goodwin turns aside Colter's questions, instructing him to focus on his mission. Colter is told that he's part of a project code-named "Beleaguered Castle," and that real lives are at stake. His sole mission: find the bomb and identify the bomber.
Why doesn't Colter remember signing up for Beleaguered Castle? Can he alter events on the train—prevent the bomb from going off, or at least get passengers off the train? Is the bearded, bespectacled figure behind Goodwin, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the inventor of the technology inserting Colter into the train, and what exactly does it do? Is Goodwin's tight-lipped professionalism merely a dramatic device to maintain suspense, or is there a rationale for it?
Answers are slow in coming, and not everything is necessarily as it might seem—but nearly everything ultimately fits together more satisfyingly than you might think it would. Does it matter that the technobabble used to explain the "Source Code" technology is hand-waving that makes no sense? Yes and no. I can accept a "magic science" effect for the sake of a good story. Yet at the end comes an alarming moment when the film threatens to derail entirely before unexpectedly righting itself, and in a way I can't explain. The very fact that it makes more sense than it should highlights the absurdity of Dr. Rutledge's technobabble.
There are a few hitches. For an Air Force vet among civilians, Colter's combat acumen seems mediocre; other characters repeatedly get the better of him in ways that shouldn't happen. It's also not always clear why he persists in spending time on multiple iterations not searching for the bomber, though eventually his extracurricular efforts are at least partly vindicated. A disturbing plot twist raises moral issues around euthanasia, and although a defense could certainly be made for a character's choices, the film itself doesn't really engage the moral issues.
It may also be felt that the bomber's identity and vague motives amount to a lame genuflection to the sort of politically correct fiction that someone, oh, like me is as likely to be a terrorist as anyone, if not more so. (On the other hand, casting the African-American Wright as the morally compromised head of the Source Code project is an unconventional choice.)
While you're watching it, though, Jones holds the experience together with effective pacing, strategically timed revelations and a canny focus on Colter's emotional arc. Gyllenhaal makes this everyman a sympathetic, beleaguered hero. Farmiga, behind her professional demeanor, brings emotional depth to the role of Colter's one link to the rest of the world. As for Monaghan, she's about as appealing as a woman could be whom we know only for the last eight minutes of her life. Sly bits of wit pepper the film. (Beleaguered Castle refers to a form of solitaire, and fans of Moon will smile at the ringtone on Christina's cellphone.)
An existential quandary hangs over the final act. Is Colter's mission, identifying the bomber, enough? Not for him. He won't be satisfied unless he can save the lives on that train, starting with Christina. Inception raised the disturbing prospect of an illusory catharsis—an artificial happy ending entirely in someone's mind (certainly Fischer's, and possibly Cobb's as well). Is that enough? What if nothing better is possible?
Source Code takes this conundrum in an unexpected direction—and while that direction has some critics crying foul, it's icing on the cake from where I sit. In the end, at least one nagging question lingers. Every time Goodwin and Rutledge throw the switch and Colter wakes up in Sean's body, what happens to Sean? It's a question that can't necessarily be mooted as easily as you might think.Discussion starters
- If you could go back and change one thing in your life, what would it be? Have you ever thought about what you would do if you could go back in time to, say, one hour before the terrorist planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11? What would you do?
- How would the world be different if we really had the ability to undo past historical events?
- Colter says he thinks that one death for one's country is enough. What do you think he means? Granted the premise, is Colter morally obliged to try to complete his mission? Should he be willing to accept other missions after this one? Is it acceptable for the project to use him in this way? Does it depend on his consent?
- Are Goodwin's actions in the end morally justified? Why or why not?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Source Code is rated PG-13 for "some violence including disturbing images, and for language." Besides the repeated explosive violence of the train blowing up, there are some deadly shootings, a man hit by a train, and other violent incidents. There are brief, unsettling shots of a badly mangled body in a post-surgical context. There's some crass and offensive language, and a character tells a rude sexual joke.
Photos © Summit Entertainment.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.