Review: Source Code

Trains, brains and alternate realities comprise “Source Code,” the sophomore feature from Duncan Jones, director of 2009’s intellectual sci-fi dish “Moon” starring Sam Rockwell. Jones coaches a similarly terrific actor in Jake Gyllenhaal to another commanding yet heart-filled leading performance. The difference is that “Moon” was contemplative and brooding; “Source Code” moves at thrill-a-minute pace. Both, however, possess that same cerebral quality that wins audiences over.

A less elaborate “Inception” might be one way to classify “Source Code,” as both share this newly founded sub-sub-genre of carrying out missions in a lifelike non-reality. “Source Code” focuses on Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot in the air force who finds himself inside the titular program, which zaps him into the body of a random passenger aboard a Chicago-bound commuter train that will explode in exactly eight minutes. The passenger has already died in this incident and so has everyone on the train, but as program creator Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) explains, part of the human brain’s short-term memory still functions in a window of time after death. The source code recreates that eight-minute long experience. The idea is that Stevens can use those eight minutes to learn information about the crime and prevent future acts of terror; all other objectives are secondary.

Rookie writer Ben Ripley’s script moves along well enough with Jones’ pacing to keep our attention away from holes in the plot and the science and everything you’d expect in a film this preposterous to make “Source Code” a fun and stimulating ride. And although it’s seemingly all about brain science, the film displays a surprising amount of heart and a unique perspective on human nature. Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan ooze a certain likability that ups the ante and lets us step back from putting the plot’s puzzle pieces together so that we may adore the chemistry and other gooier moments free of guilt.

Even Vera Farmiga, who plays the face on the monitor guiding Stevens through the process, becomes a more involved character throughout the film, which offers a nice change of pace compared to similar military characters in these kinds of offerings.

The story withholds a frustrating amount of information at the beginning, made all the worse by Stevens begging Farmiga’s Goodwin for answers and her continued reluctant denial of them. From the trailers, you also have an idea of what the source code is all about, but not having that confirmation is tantalizing for the first portion of the film. Frustrating, but darn effective. The answers, while not presented in a miraculous twist format are unique and certainly not predictable. Without spoiling anything, I can assure you that there’s no source code within a source code.

As a Chicago resident, “Source Code” was both cooler and more ridiculous. From what I could piece together, I’m pretty sure this was I usually took when I was a resident of the suburbs. I can’t fathom anyone trying to blow it up — it’s kind of boring. The whole “who’s the terrorist?” element of the plot, however, ranks way behind the film’s character-driven objectives. We’re supposed to care much more about Stevens’ and his experience with the source code, not about the ultimately irrelevant context Ripley concocted to get him there.

As such, the film could’ve taken place anywhere, although Jones takes great joy in turning Chicago’s infamous “bean” in Millennium Park into a metaphor for the film. Henceforth, I won’t be looking at the bean the same way again. I will also be sure to crawl underneath it on my next visit and decree: “I am in the source code.”

Even if only coincidence, great pride comes from this thrilling movie being set in my fair city. A gripping original story — no matter the size of the gaping holes in its logic or the terrible CGI used to create its explosion sequences — clearly overrules everything, and this film has the proof. “Source Code” offers a thinker’s thriller without the headache, a story geared to sci-fi nerds with a universally appealing message at its core. I suspect some will scoff at its relatively mid-range intellectual level, but from a pure storytelling perspective, “Source Code” does everything right, very much in the same way (but on a smaller scale) that James Cameron’s films do. Duncan Jones should now be on everyone’s list a director worth keeping tabs on if he can continue to bring high-concept films down to earth.

4/5 Stars

Source Code
Directed by Duncan Jones
Written by Ben Ripley
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright

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