Film review by: Witney Seibold
“Source Code” is a film that’s not exactly about time travel, but is still rife with all the logical, paradoxical problems commonly encountered in time travel stories. When you exit the theater, you’ll be thrilled by the clever conceits and emotional trials the characters had to make, but a few moments of serious reflection will, perhaps, reveal just how flimsy the premise is. I mention all this at the outset to get it out of the way, as “Source Code” is actually a taut and thrilling and clever movie, whose logical jumps and fudged science are a mere itch in an otherwise largely satisfying film.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier named Coulter Stevens who has been sequestered in a bunker somewhere. He communicates to his superiors through video screens. His superiors (played by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) are able to, using a hastily explained time-bending machine, shunt Coulter’s consciousness into the body of a man who died in a train bombing earlier that morning, effective creating a hugely accurate simulation of real life, which reacts to outside stimuli. This is essentially the world’s most accurate video game. The shunting only lasts exactly eight minutes, however, and Coulter must relive the last eight-minute period on board that train, over and over, trying to find the bomber. The bomber has, you see, planned a second attack that must be prevented. On the train, he gets to know the commuters, and has to suss out just who is suspicious, as well as interpret the pseudo-flirty advances of his avatar’s companion (Michelle Monaghan). Back in the bunker, his memory seems to be playing tricks on him, and it must be explained to him how he came to be in that bunker, and just what his mission is.
What director Duncan Jones does best with “Source Code” is parallelling its two timelines. There are building tensions in the bunker, as small pieces of the truth are slowly revealed to our hero. At the same time, Coulter becomes increasingly desperate in his simulated eight-minute loop. For small portions, the meticulous meting out of information (that is, to the audience) feels a little frustrating, but the reveals are satisfying enough to salve any frustration. The machine itself may be the usual sci-fi technobabble, but the actors are all talented enough to lend real weight and tension to the premise. Wright, in particular, while lurching about with a cane, and growling like a vaudeville villain, does seem genuinely annoyed by his charge, and genuinely faithful about his wonderful machine.
A film’s emotional tension film really hinges on its lead, and Gyllenhaal is professional and capable. Had a lesser actor attempted to do this film, I fear our hero would have eventually have broken down into melodramatic hysterics, or bolstering, tough-guy asshole tactics. Gyllenhaal, however, gives us a palpable sense of controlled panic. He is completely out of his element, but his a soldier, and let’s his soldier’s instinct take over for long periods.
For a film that is essentially about time travel, and repeating the same eight-minute period over and over, I wish the screenplay had been a mite more clever. It’s a good thriller to be sure, but I found myself asking why certain actions were necessary. As is appropriate to its “Twilight Zone” setup, there is a twist ending (several, in fact, which are of mixed effectiveness). Don’t think about the twist ending too hard, though. Like I said, it’ll fall apart. I just want to know what happened to the other commuter’s mind when Coulter took over his body.
If you are a video game fan, you’ll love this movie. It’s constructed exactly like a video game. In a video game, you control another person, and have a specific task at hand. If you fail, you lose a life and have to start over. For those who get deeply into their video games, you may be able to relate to the projected consciousness thing.
Duncan Jones has now made two films (his previous being “Moon”), and while he has proven himself to be a talented director, I’m beginning to fear that his films will all be similar; both his films are sci-fi pictures about a lone hero, trapped in an undesirable workspace, assigned a repetative task, whose true nature is kept a secret from them in order that they may complete a task for some aloof higher-up. I look forward to Jones’ next film, though. He seems capable of a lot.