May 1, 2020
Source Code (2011)
Source Code, the second feature film from director Duncan Jones, was highly anticipated in certain circles in the wake of his impressive debut Moon. In the place of the contemplative, cerebral, 2001-esque style of his previous film, Source Code gives us a more straightforward, audience-friendly action-thriller about catching a terrorist. But just like before, Jones delves into some heady sci-fi concepts. And alas, just as before, he crafts another film that entertains despite having a story that doesn’t quite seem to have been completely thought through.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, an Army helicopter pilot who suddenly awakes aboard a commuter train to Chicago. The pretty brunette across from him (Michelle Monaghan) is saying she took his advice, and repeatedly calls him “Sean”. She seems to know him well, even though Colter has never laid eyes upon her before in his life.
Colter scrambles around the train wide-eyed, trying to make sense of his predicament. His last memories are of being on a mission in Afghanistan, and adding to his confusion, the ID card in his wallet belongs to a history teacher named Sean Fentress. And when Colter looks in a mirror, he sees another man’s face looking back at him.
Before he can make much sense of things, an explosion rips through the train, killing everyone on board.
…And that’s when Colter wakes up inside a tiny, cramped, Apollo-type capsule. His only connection to the outside world is a TV monitor where Col. Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) slowly fills him in: He’s been working with the “Source Code” project for two months, and his current mission is to find whoever’s responsible for bombing that train, because the same fanatic has threatened to detonate a dirty bomb in Chicago, killing thousands.
This jogs Colter’s memories, but before he can recall much more, he suddenly wakes up on the same train, and experiences the same events all over again: The pretty brunette says she took his advice, the same people get on and off the train, the conductor takes his ticket at the same moment, and the same explosion rips through the train and kills everyone, and Colter ends up right back in his capsule again.
He initially believes the train to be an extremely lifelike virtual reality training simulation, but eventually, the head of the project Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright, walking with a limp and a crutch, so you know he’s a genius) appears on the monitor to finally explain things: Colter is being sent aboard the actual train minutes before it blows up. However, Source Code is not time travel, but rather “time reassignment”.
It seems the military has developed the technology to link up to a dead person’s brain, and recover the last remaining contents of the subject’s short term memory. Which then allows someone like Colter who’s the right genetic/neurological match to re-experience those final minutes, sort of like the 21st century version of that old canard that the last thing a person sees is imprinted on their retinas.
Colter is repeatedly reliving the last eight minutes of the life of Sean Fentress, a history teacher who died on the train. (And a very flexible eight minutes, at that. Sometimes it goes by in a flash, sometimes it feels like a third of the movie.) And as Rutledge explains, every time he goes back, a parallel reality is created, allowing Colter to move through the train, and investigate and discover things that Fentress couldn’t possibly have seen or known.
What follows is a Groundhog Day-meets-Quantum Leap scenario (Scott Bakula even gets a cell phone voice cameo) where Colter repeatedly relives the same sequence of events, slowly coming to memorize them, until his head is so full of foreknowledge that he cracks the case with preternatural ease. But along the way, Colter soon learns the devastating truth of where he is, and the true nature of Source Code.
Frankly, the movie makes no sense. And it appears to be fully aware that it makes no sense, because it blasts us through the story so quickly that we never have time to notice. And this approach works; a film where the same sequence of events repeats itself over and over could easily get tedious, but Source Code is mostly a brisk ride.
The fundamental flaw is expecting us to believe that tapping into the short-term memory of a dead person will somehow create a parallel universe. As in, a real, parallel reality. There’s not the slightest bit of a hand-wave or obligatory technobabble to even try to make this seem logical.
What’s more, Rutledge seems utterly uninterested in the full ramifications of Source Code. He’s invented a computer that can create a new reality, and the only thing on his mind is maintaining his funding. He may be operating under the assumption that these parallel realities only exist inside the computer, I suppose, but the movie never makes it clear.
On top of that, much of Colter’s time is spent simply figuring out the location of the bomb. Seriously? They have the technology to spawn alternate realities, but they can’t pinpoint the location of the bomb by examining the wreckage of the train?
The other major problem is that the movie feels like it has about five different endings. There are a couple of moments where the film could have easily faded to black and provided a satisfying (though open-ended) conclusion. Instead, the film keeps going, as if it were under some obligation to provide a concrete “happy” ending. Without spoiling things, there’s a moment where the camera swoops through the train, showing us several of the passengers locked in time and frozen in place; this would have made for a perfect ending. Or at the very least, a lot of what happens after that point could have been saved for mid-credits or post-credits Easter eggs.
Also, what was the reasoning behind the moment where the life support system fails in Colter’s capsule, and he almost freezes to death? It’s a strange interlude that never has any impact on the rest of the movie, and doesn’t even make sense once it’s revealed that the capsule only exists inside Colter’s mind.
And I could only roll my eyes when it turned out the bad guy was a white, male, right-wing, anti-government “super patriot”, a well-worn cliché by this point. A more daring film would have had Sean Fentress himself be the bomber, or at least in cahoots with the bomber, but clearly, that would have put a damper on the crowd-pleasing happy ending.
And what kind of terrorist carries out a smaller bombing as a prelude to his real, actual bombing? All he’s done is tip off the authorities early, giving them time to evacuate the city, locate the bomb, and track him down. Perhaps Bakula’s cameo was actually in reference to his role as Captain Archer, specifically the episode where aliens “test out” their Earth-destroying weapon a year ahead of time by first wiping out Florida.
There’s also a cutesy, annoying bit where the film features a small role for standup comic Russell Peters as—brace yourselves—a standup comic. And you just know when a movie casts a real-life comedian as a comedian, sooner or later he’s going to bust out his routine. There’s nothing more cringe-worthy than watching someone do standup comedy in a fictional movie (I think it’s mostly the spectators’ forced laughter that makes me grind my teeth), and this scene is no exception.
Jake Gyllenhaal does perfectly fine here, given the role mostly involves scampering around agog, but as an actor he often makes some strange choices. In particular, he really needs to work on his “disbelief” face, which comes off just as goofy as the time a giant rabbit told him the world was about to end.
Michelle Monaghan is quite charming and lovely here, even if she’s really not much more than the trophy for the hero to claim at the end. I’m surprised she hasn’t had more high profile roles in her career, though I suspect it’s because she and Bridget Moynahan are like the female version of Dylan McDermott and Dermot Mulroney.
Source Code is an above average movie, just not one that deserves more than a Sunday afternoon viewing when it inevitably turns up on FX in a year. Apparently, the film was still good enough to earn Duncan Jones the job of directing the Warcraft adaptation, though any World of Warcraft fans out there should be a little concerned about Jones’ ability to tell a story that makes sense. But judging by the two films he’s given us so far, it’ll at least be a couple of hours of intriguing, entertaining nonsense.