Source Code

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April 11, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

When Duncan Jones released his ambitious debut Moon in 2009, writers in print and the web delighted in comparing the young director to his famous father in terms of their shared love of sci-fi (critics passed around “Space Oddity” puns like cheap weed at a freshman mixer). But if the erstwhile Zowie Bowie inherited any artistic tendencies from Daddy Ziggy, it is in his love of pastiche. David aped Lou and Iggy before mining Krautrock, while Jones’ debut featured blatant nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Solaris and more.

His latest, Source Code, serves as further evidence that Jones is a major emerging talent in genre film but also that he has yet to move beyond his influences. Brought to the project by a sharp Jake Gyllenhaal, Jones’ vision of the film suggests he was always involved with the movie. Tom Charity came up with my favorite comparative summary of Source Code when he described it as “a cross between Groundhog Day and Murder on the Orient Express1, but Jones clearly draws from time travel films such as 12 Monkeys and Déjà Vu as well as solipsistic fantasies in the vein of Brazil.

If Source Code shows any progression on its maker’s part, though, it is that one does not spend as much time thinking of other movies while watching it. Though not as emotionally or morally meditative as Moon, Source Code is more enjoyable to kick back and watch, barreling ahead full-speed even when its main character begs for a moment’s pause.

Proving a highly competent suspense director, Jones manages to eke mounting unease and bewilderment from the opening images, most of which appeared in the overexposed trailer. An Army captain (Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train in the body of a history teacher in Chicago, capable only of freaking people out before the train explodes and kills everyone on-board. He wakes up in a giant capsule with secret military officials asking him who set off the bomb on the train before sending him back for another 8 minutes in a dead man’s life.

These repetitions are framed in close-ups with minute but significant variations in the sense of déjà vu. Like a more hands-on version of the viewing screen in Déjà Vu, the use of the source code of a human’s last 8 minutes of life allows the protagonist the chance to interact with the past with the warning he cannot change the future. But like ATF agent Doug Carlin, Capt. Colter Stevens soon learns that he can alter more than he thought and begins to fight back against physics itself to save the specter of the woman whom (or which, if she is but a shadow) he loves.

Jones’ film, like Scott’s, addresses issues of post-9/11 security and the what-ifs of being able to prevent terrorist attacks. But where Scott painted a broad canvas of post-9/11 and post-Katrina national emotions and contradictions, Jones and writer Ben Ripley take a more darkly political tract. Source Code more explicitly brings up issues of PTSD: Stevens’ last memory before waking up in another man’s body in an American city now foreign to him is of flying a helicopter mission in Afghanistan. His panicked state in the body of Sean Fentress thus serves as a clear metaphor for the stress and terror of re-acclimation in society.

When further details about Stevens are revealed, the film becomes a harsh examination of the military-industrial complex’s exploitation of the American soldier. Though Stevens speaks primarily to another military captain, the sympathetic Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), the head of the source code program is a civilian scientist named Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), an officious privateer looking to make his mark with the program. Rutledge sends Stevens into the source code to learn the identity of the bomber to prevent another, larger attack in downtown Chicago, but he only seems to care insofar as a successful prevention would validate his program and win him unlimited favor with the government.

Rutledge merely plays games with Stevens, and indeed Source Code often feels like a military video game in which we feel the character’s repeated deaths as he tries to pass a “level”. Rutledge gets to feel like a patriot as he sends this soldier to be blown up every eight minutes, and even tells the tortured man “most soldiers would be honored to give their lives to this country more than once,” completely oblivious to the horror of what he so callously asks of those who have actually had to face danger.

But the film doesn’t pursue these ideas in the same way Jones more thoroughly explored the idea of a man seemingly built to serve others in Moon. Instead, too much (yet paradoxically not enough) time is spent trying to build up the relationship between Stevens/Sean and Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a co-worker of Sean’s who died in the bombing. This storyline distracts from the confounding thriller aspect of the film, but it also lacks the narrative bedrock to serve as the emotional resonance of the story. Déjà Vu developed its protagonist’s obsession through incessant observation of a woman that preceded all contact. Source Code actually places its hero with his love interest at the start, and none of their interactions do anything to develop a bond between them, one-sided or otherwise. Near the end, the film takes a more broadly human approach and decently includes the other hundreds of passengers on the train in Stevens’ attempts to change the unalterable, but too much time is spent nursing an undercooked plotline.

That’s not the only issue plaguing this film. Farmiga too veers between seriousness and sympathy at the convenience of plot, and Wright — a fantastically talented performer — hams it up as Rutledge, speaking in hushed, rapid tones incessantly, to the point that one suspects Rutledge orders McDonald’s in the same voice to an exasperated drive-thru attendant. But the most glaring flaw is in its ending, which suggests Jones and Ripley may be the only two people to have actually preferred the tacked-on codas to films like Blade Runner and Brazil. It does not successfully unify the film’s split between the intellectual and emotional; if anything, it is the final ax blow that fully cleaves the wedge.

Still, the film does make for an ace thriller, and I forgave it much as I was watching it. Only after the fact does this cataloging of issues seem severe. The film may be a jumble with its multiple planes of perception and supposed reality (and I’m not even getting into the holes of logic and plot), but it’s a jumble that actually doesn’t let itself get out of hand and derail the momentum, a rarity for this kind of film. If I was not invested in the ties that bound these characters, I at least cared to see what would happen to them, and Gyllenhaal in particular puts in his best work in years making this undefined character worth the audience’s attention.

I still feel that the only decent wide release film to hit the U.S. so far this year is Rango, but Source Code is incredibly entertaining. Though a slight step back for Jones in some respects, in others it shows him moving forward. He continues to make inventive and engaging sci-fi films for modest budgets, and if he must define himself largely through the work of others, at least he comes up with some interesting juxtapositions. Who else would think of crossing Brazil and Déjà Vu with Johnny Got His Gun?

1 Tom Charity’s review for CNN.

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