SXSW FILM 2011
By Dave Wilson | March 31, 2011
Director: Duncan Jones
Writer(s): Ben Ripley
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga
Source Code is an extraordinarily creative and immensely satisfying new science fiction film that has the courage from its first frames to drop us into a truly disorienting situation where we must fend for ourselves without any explanation, while moment-by-moment, our questions mount. It is a film that is part breakneck action thriller—like Speed, the ticking clock is quite literal—and part mind-bending science fiction parable of the Philip K. Dick variety. In fact, in many ways, Source Code comes across as a more genuine descendent of Philip K. Dick than The Adjustment Bureau, a recent adaptation of one of Dick’s stories. When Source Code takes off, we are never sure where we stand, or how well we understand the rules of the game. And here, my friends, is where the real pleasure in moviegoing lies, and why this film holds such wonders.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as an Army captain, Colter Stevens, who erupts from reverie on a commuter train speeding towards Chicago. He’s seated across from a beautiful fellow passenger, played by Michelle Monaghan, and the two are in mid-conversation. Only, Stevens has no idea who this woman is, or how he got on the train. A moment ago, he was flying a helicopter mission somewhere in Afghanistan. How the hell did he get here? And why does this woman keep calling him Sean?
All of this has the flavor of a dream. Nothing makes sense. He’s alarmed, he’s erratic. Let’s face it, he freaks out and starts to frighten the other passengers. And within minutes, it’s all moot, because just as the train hits Chicago, it’s engulfed in flames and ripped to shreds. Everyone dies.
Except now, Colter Stevens is in uniform, strapped into some kind of dark, disabled capsule, where he receives instructions from a tense, conflicted officer named Goodwin, played with great conviction by Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), who appears on a computer monitor, and assures him that he’s on a mission that might seal the fate of the whole country. She gives him nothing but his goal: go back to the train, identify the bomber, and do it in eight minutes flat. Always eight minutes. And now he’s back on the train, reborn at that same instant, eight minutes before the explosion, seated across from that woman again, but lost, confused, and plagued by painful regrets of his own. But the task is the same: there’s a cabin full of people and a bomber on the loose.
I won’t reveal too much about what’s actually going on, except to say that it involves the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum physics and a baffling process somewhat like time travel that pitches Stevens back into the traces of reality left behind in the last impulses fired off in the brain of a doomed passenger. A whole host of wonderful, maddening paradoxes come to light, which sends the film spiraling headlong into a series of unexpected problems and pathways. There is a moment early on when we feel the influence of Groundhog Day, as the same beats start to play out again and again, but just as you start to worry that you’re going to see that coffee spill again, we move on and find ourselves within a completely different film–or rather, universe.
Now the average Hollywood film routinely spoon-feeds us all of the exposition and ground rules we need to start off on sure footing. Getting confused? That’s okay; someone will turn to a secondary character and get them up to speed. Remember all of those scenes with Leonardo DiCaprio explaining the rules of dream extraction to an open-mouthed Ellen Page in Inception (a film I liked, incidentally)? There’s a compulsive fear of losing the audience, of leaving them behind. Hollywood is terrified of the open-ended, the unspoken, or the ambiguous. Create a puzzle, ask a question, then spell it out for us beat by blessed beat, as soon as you can, before that lady in the sixth row gets lost and looks away.
Director Duncan Jones, on the other hand, is already proving himself to be a master of cryptic, unorthodox films that begin with familiar genres and chew through them like termites. He is no stranger to the offbeat and the open-ended. His previous film, which couldn’t be any more different tonally, was the quiet one-man sci-fi meditation, Moon, which starred Sam Rockwell as a miner at a remote lunar outpost, whom we assume is simply cracking up from the solitude. After all, he comes face to face with his own doppelganger. And yet, how simple things would be if just a little sanity were at stake.
Don’t get me wrong. Jones treads a very fine line between crafting suspenseful, intricate puzzles and just pulling the rug out from under us with big Twilight Zone-style twists. To my mind, so far, he lands surely on the side of artful suspense and earns every reversal honestly because they emerge organically from the decisions his characters make when faced with the invisible, but steady clockwork of a universe with rules they can’t see, but which we always feel to be there.
One of the joys of this film is the way in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s character absolutely refuses to accept the constraints of this shadow reality and its paradoxes. He is told that his actions in these alternate universes cannot change the reality inhabited by Goodwin and the others who send him on his mission. He can’t actually save the people who already died on that train, they say. But what if he just gets off the train and takes that woman with him? Can he contact the team that sent him back during that eight-minute time frame, or even his own estranged father? If he isn’t really “there,” where is he, precisely?
Source Code is a remarkable film, but it is by no means perfect. I would argue that it is so inventive in the way that it parses out its reversals that it simply doesn’t know when to stop. The finale, in particular, includes a coda that feels gratuitous and somewhat unsatisfying. I keep wishing that this film had ended about five minutes earlier, and that these last beats could have been excised and perhaps included down the line as supplements on the DVD. But these are small defects. Source Code is an engaging, shape-shifter of a film that makes us work to keep up. It is a film that takes the form of a thriller, but has a through-line that is far richer, and more emotionally and metaphysically resonant, by the time we have experienced the many worlds our hero has.