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Josh Reviews Source Code

May 11th, 2011
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The phenomenally high-quality Moon (starring Sam Rockwell — read my review here) guaranteed that I’d buy a ticket for director Duncan Jones’ next film.  Well, that film has arrived, and although it took me several weeks to find the time to get catch it in a theatre, I’ve finally seen Source Code.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Captain Colter Stevens.  He wakes up on a train heading towards Chicago, but doesn’t have any idea how he got there.  His last memory is flying a mission in Afghanistan.  Across the seat from him is a woman, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who seems to know him, but he has no idea who she is.  Also, she calls him Sean.  After a few frantic minutes trying to figure out what’s happening to him, the train explodes, killing Captain Stevens, Christina, and everyone on board.

But Captain Stevens doesn’t die.  He wakes up in some sort of pod.  A woman on-screen in a military uniform identifies herself as Goodwin and begins to lay out some of the details of Captain Stevens’ situation.  A terrorist detonated a bomb on that train and has threatened to decimate Chicago by detonating another bomb, this one with nuclear material.  A technology known as Source Code will allow Captain Stevens to relive the last eight minutes of life of one of the passengers on the doomed train.  He has that long to try to identify the bomber and prevent the threatened destruction of Chicago.  They’re going to continue sending him back into that eight minutes until he does.

Let me get this right off the bat: Source Code is no Moon. It’s an entertaining sci-fi thriller, and it certainly has some fun mind-bending concepts, but it’s nowhere near as memorable as the incredibly original, tightly-structured Moon.

Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan do fine work as the two leads.  They’re both talented and charismatic enough that they capture our interest even though we don’t really get to learn much about either character.  The focus of the film is far more on the intricate sci-fi plotting than it is on developing characters.  That’s not a criticism — I love twisty plot-driven films.  But when comparing this film to, say Speed (which is certainly not great cinema but is a rousing action adventure that also focuses on a man and a woman trapped in an enclosed moving vehicle in a tense situation), it’s clear that we certainly get to know Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock’s characters far better than we do those of Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Monaghan.  I adored Ms. Monaghan’s work in the magnificent Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and the also-terrific Gone Baby Gone, and I’ve been waiting for her to have another role as complex and interesting.  This isn’t it.  But as I stated above, for what they’re asked to do in this film, Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Monaghan are both pretty perfect.  They’re fun and compelling and easy to root for.

Same goes for Vera Farmiga as Goodwin, and Jeffrey Wright as her boss in the Source Code project, Dr. Rutledge.  These aren’t really characters, they’re plot vehicles.  But as plot vehicles go, Ms. Farmiga and Mr. Wright do a great job keeping their side of the story interesting, and they’re both marvelous at delivering exposition in a non-boring way.

I love that Source Code is a time-travel story that does not in fact involve any actual time-travel.  The explanations that we’re given as to how Source Code works are fascinating, and represent a quite original take on time-travel, which has, I think, been done to death in sci-fi movies and TV shows over the past 30 years.  So major credit to Duncan Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley for that.

What disappointed me, though, is that when you start really thinking about it, the explanations of how Source Code works don’t really make any sense.  (I’m going to try to keep things vague, but we’re treading into spoiler territory here, my friends, so be warned.)

I’m OK with the filmmakers keeping the details about Source Code vague.  I don’t need to know how on earth they were able to access the memories of one of the dead people on the train, I can accept that somehow they can.  What’s critical to me is that the film stay within it’s established rules: that while in Sean’s mind, Captain Stevens can only move through the events that Sean lived through.  He can take different actions than Sean did, within the eight-minute stretch of Sean’s life that Captain Stevens is re-living through Sean’s eyes.  So he can decide to get up and run down the train’s aisle to ask questions of the passengers, whereas the original Sean stayed in his seat for those eight minutes, until the train exploded.

But here’s the catch: if the people behind Source Code only have access to Sean’s mind and memories, and NOT that of everyone on the train (one of whom is the bomber), then how could Captain Stevens ever learn something that SEAN DIDN’T ORIGINALLY KNOW??  Since Sean never knew who the bomber was (nor did he ever know there WAS a bomber — he was ignorant of that until the train exploded and he died), if Captain Stevens only has access to Sean’s mind/memories, he should never have any possible way of learning the identity of the bomber, which Sean never knew.  None of the talk of alternate realities or anything that happens later in the film should alter that fact.  And so the whole story falls apart for me, which is a big disappointment.

Forget all of the Source Code stuff — even the bombing plot doesn’t really make any sense.  If the bomber’s aim was to destroy Chicago, why tip his/her hand by starting with the relatively minor act of killing a hundred people on a train?  Wouldn’t that cause the police to start hunting for him/her, and make his/her attempt to destroy Chicago that much more difficult?  And it’s awfully convenient for the Source Code crew (who only have the ability to send one of their operatives into the mind of the last eight minutes of a person’s life) that the bomber happened to have still been on the train during that time, huh?  Couldn’t he/she have been in any one of a million other possible locations (like just sitting at a train station, so he/she could keep an eye on things) rather than actually on the train itself?

I really enjoyed watching Source Code — it’s a fun, fast-paced adventure.  But for me to want to re-watch it, I’d have to feel that the mind-bending craziness of the film all fits together somehow in the end (in the way that a film like Memento does, when you can watch that over and over again and marvel at how perfectly all of the pieces fit together).  For me, at least, Source Code doesn’t feel like it fits together at all.  So while I had a fun time watching it, it’s not a film I see myself revisiting any time soon.

I still think Duncan Jones is a great director, and I love the type of twisty sci-fi material he seems to be attracted to.  I wish him better luck next time.

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