Director Duncan Jones’ second film is another intelligent, eloquent science fiction thriller.
Sincere without growing mawkish, intelligent without becoming geeky or pretentious, Duncan Jones’ Source Code justifies the promise the director showed with his similarly ambitious science fiction mindbender Moon. Like that debut effort, Jones’ second film reveals a warm and compassionate concern not just for the workings of the science fiction elements of story but also for the human emotions spun out of their wake, and the emphasis – especially in the last half-hour – is on character development and interaction.
Army captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the covert operative for Project: Beleaguered Castle, an Air Force counter-terrorism group that can project his consciousness into the “after-image” of recent temporal events and allow him to occupy a host body of comparable age, height, and size. It’s complicated science, though explained via simplified metaphor by the project’s direct Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright.) Source Code technology is not exactly time travel, and not entirely jumping between parallel worlds, but Stevens’ jaunts into the remnants of immediately recent events allow the project to gather intelligence about upcoming terrorist attacks.
His current mission involves finding the bomb secreted aboard a Chicago-bound commuter train before those responsible detonate a dirty bomb within the city itself. But increasing disorientation hampers Steven’s effectiveness, even as he’s increasingly distracted by Christina, the woman (Michelle Monaghan) accompanying his host body into the city. Stevens tries, tries again to locate the bomb and the passenger he believes may set it off. But each failure – he has only eight minutes to complete his mission – results in the train’s explosive destruction and a painful jolt back to the project’s headquarters.
Worse, he suspects the doctor as well as Goodwin, his mission control operator (Vera Farmiga) are less than candid with the information they provide him, both about his role in the project as well as the events surrounding his recruitment into it. Stevens remembers serving as a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan but nothing of the last two months, and Goodwin’s evasion of questions, as well as Rutledge’s condescension, make him even less trusting.
The second act centers on Stevens’ abortive attempts to apprehend the bomber and disarm the bomb, even while he draws closer to the girl. Stevens also reasons he can use his time on the train to research the project itself and his service in Kandahar, the better to fill in the blanks of his memory. Each return trip home – he fails many times, often in ways that ought to evoke pity from the audience – reveals his mission capsule in greater disrepair. Pressing Goodwin for more information, he learns he may not be in the capsule at all but that his physical body may reside somewhere else entirely.
But he eventually prevails, locating the bomber and confronting him – once disastrously, the second time with success. With a train full of suspects, Ben Ripley’s script has fun manipulating audience expectations regarding the bomber’s identity: the nature of his evil more closely resemble homegrown anarchist Timothy McVeigh than 21st Century notions of Islamic extremism. The remainder of the film focuses on the nature of the bottle reality itself, whether Stevens can escape his real-world fate, and whether he can mend his relationship with his estranged father and jumpstart a romance with Christina. The willingness to devote so much time to events and details outside the ostensible main plot thread is a curious structural decision, but thanks to Ripley and Jones’ expert handling the film never once sags in suspense or pace.
The actors are perfectly if sometimes predictably cast. Gyllenhaal is a talented and versatile actor who’s still yet to find his niche with audiences, but here the action chops that went largely unnoticed in last year’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (coincidentally, another adventure driven by short-distance time travel) get better use in the heightened tension of the railway plot. Still, he fares better in the character-driven scenes, especially with Farmiga and the actor playing his father (the actor’s identity is too much of a treat, and concession, to long-time sci-fi fans to divulge). As the sweet, beguiling Christina, Monaghan plays to the type she’s already performed in a half-dozen films. She’s a lovely and talented actress, but the role does little to showcase the range she’s demonstrated elsewhere.
Wright is spot-on as the pompous doctor who sees Stevens as nothing more than a resource, and Farmiga’s character arc – efficient to humane – may make her the film’s most fully development personality. Whereas Moon was centered – and carried – by the formidable acting talents of Sam Rockwell, the larger script gives Jones time and space to explore more complicated character interactions. Like Moon, the protagonist is separated by space and technology from the answers he needs; the answers this time rely less on shock value and more on character sympathy.
As with probably any great science fiction film, enjoyment relies somewhat on your willing suspension of disbelief, in giving the film license to let a hole slip into the plot when perhaps you’re less likely to notice. But in the meantime it offers the best kind of not just science fiction but fiction itself – rooted in humanity and letting emotions rather than spectacle guide its way. Source Code brings that all together while still maintaining its action-charged momentum – it’s a lot more movie than it seems.
- Michael Kabel