Source Code (United States, 2011)

March 28, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Source Code Poster

Source Code is what might happen if one cross-bred Groundhog Day with 24 and The Matrix. The resultant offspring is not as trippy or successful as any of its parents, but it fits nicely into the growing niche of mind-bending virtual reality experiences in which "existence" is more a state of mind than a state of being. And, while Source Code probably isn't as smart as it pretends to be (or wants us to think it is), it will result in some viewers ruminating about the multiverse and quantum mechanics. For the masses (as opposed to the geeks who understand the previous sentence), this is a decent mind-bending thriller. Many may find it a bit repetitive (as with Groundhog Day, there is the palpable déjà vu) and more than a few will be confused.

Things start out normally enough. Sean (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens from a nap on a Chicago-bound commuter train. Sitting across from him is his pretty platonic pal, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). But there's a problem. Sean is disoriented and, more than that, he is convinced that he's not Sean. His real name is Colter Stevens, and he's supposed to be serving in Afghanistan, not trading pleasantries with an attractive woman while a conductor asks him for his ticket. Eight minutes later, the train blows up and Colter finds himself strapped into a seat in what appears to be a space capsule. It's leaking hydraulic fluid. A screen flickers to life in front of him and a woman, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), provides an ambiguous debriefing. He is, in fact, Colter Stevens, but through the magic of virtual reality, he is being placed into the "source code" and allowed to take over the mind and body of Sean during the final eight minutes of his life. Each time he enters the source code, he ventures into an alternate reality. His goal: find out who planted the bomb on the train, because there are indications that the same terrorist intends to detonate a dirty bomb in the middle of Chicago. In addition to completing his mission, Colter decides to save Christina and determine why someone who should be in Afghanistan is trapped in something that looks like it was created for Battlestar Galactica.

Does all of this make sense? Not really, but there are some interesting ideas in Ben Ripley's screenplay. Fundamental logical flaws aside (plenty of which are readily identifiable for anyone who takes some time to coolly and rationally consider them), Source Code is guilty of overreaching, which is a claim few films can make. At times, the movie does some intriguing things. On other occasions, it turns preposterous. The ending, while not as maddening as that of Inception, offers an instance of infinite recursion that boggles the mind and provides a glimpse of what is meant by "an infinite number of universes." How far down the rabbit hole can one go?

At its heart, however, Source Code is a mystery/thriller. It's about a guy with a time limit trying to find a suspect before he lets loose hell in the United States' third-largest city. To enrich the pot, there are secondary questions surrounding Sean/Colter's true identity and the circumstances that led to his involvement in the "source code" project. Things are not as they seem. And what is the role of the mysterious Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), who is frequently lurking in the background behind Goodwin?

Source Code is well paced and energetic; it's unlikely to bore anyone. One doesn't have to fully understand all its existential and quasi-science fiction elements in order to appreciate the way things play out. Jake Gyllenhaal is a solid choice for Colter; he provides a stable and affable anchor as well as an "entry point" for the viewer. When things start, he's as confused as we are and the explanations with which he is provided aid in our understanding. Michelle Monaghan is fetching as the idealized potential love interest and Vera Farmiga provides more personality than one might expect from a face at the other end of a video link. Ultimately, however, their roles are secondary. This is Gyllenhaal's movie.

The most glaring fault, aside from the occasional obtuseness (which is only a problem to viewers who demand clear, linear plot lines), is its necessary repetitiveness. Director Duncan Jones, whose previous sci-fi venture was Moon, faces a challenge: How to depict the same 8-minute time period a number of times without boring his audience. By varying pace and modifying character actions and reactions, he largely accomplishes this (in much the same way that Harold Ramis did with Groundhog Day), but there are times when the need for familiar touchstones within that window become cumbersome. More than one viewer will find himself waiting for things to go "boom" rather than paying attention to the specifics of what's happening on screen.

It's not hard to find common threads in Source Code and Moon. Both are smarter and more science-oriented than the average genre entry. Both feature men trapped in states of isolation. And both explore questions of identity. Source Code is more action-oriented and, as a result, has a stronger likelihood of mainstream acceptance. It's a fascinating and atypical choice for a major studio release and indicates that even in this era of cookie-cutter plots and braindead spectacles, filmmakers with original ideas and visions continue to toil.

Source Code (United States, 2011)

Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden
Screenplay: Ben Ripley
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Music: Chris Bacon
U.S. Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 2011-04-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1