Mark Reviews Movies

Source Code


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Duncan Jones

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence including disturbing images, and for language)

Running Time: 1:33

Release Date: 4/1/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 31, 2011

They are but phantoms on a train with the same destination and, as such, are destined to live out the same eight-minute scenario of everyday ordinariness with minor revisions over and over again until the bomb explodes. This is the haunting undertone of Source Code, an inspired thriller that involves a man solving two mysteries on at least two different planes of existence—one in that ghost train to impending terror and the other in what he perceives to be the real world.

The plot invokes multiple genre constants—mistaken identity, the ticking clock, a load of suspects—while creating multilayered puzzle with levels that start as simple as finding the bomb that imperceptibly dissolve to ones as mystifying as the very nature of reality and the potential for levels beyond our comprehension. Director Duncan Jones' sophomore feature is an exhilarating experience.

When Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens, he is on a commuter train approaching Chicago. There is a woman across from him named Christina (Michelle Monaghan), whom he has never seen before but who knows him. She thinks, though, that his name is Sean and that he is a high school history teacher; she speaks as though they talk regularly. The last thing Colter remembers is flying a helicopter in Afghanistan—explosions, a crash, and yelling.

More is amiss. His reflection in the window doesn't look right, and when he rushes to the bathroom to get a better view, it is different than what we see—what he expects. At some point, someone opens a can of soda, another spills coffee on his shoe, and Christina's phone rings. None of it registers, and Colter spends his short time on the train in a frustrated daze, assuming this is some kind of military simulation. Then, after Christina assures him everything will be ok, an explosion rocks the entire train.

Ben Ripley's screenplay throws us immediately into Colter's dilemma, as the audience tries to catch up with circumstances in exactly the same way as he must grope around in the figurative dark for knowledge of his surroundings, his purpose, and even himself. Then the floor drops for the second time, as Colter suddenly appears strapped into a seat inside an enclosed, metallic capsule full of video monitors and polygonal panels—a small window at the top reveals an expanse of unending blue sky—as the voice of a woman named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) fills the air. She is with a military operation called "Beleaguered Castle," and she needs a status update.

The narrative's structure is like an endless tunnel; each step forward—each layer peeled back—reveals only more distance to cover. In summary, as the project's head Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) explains it: Colter can continuously relive the final eight minutes of a passenger on the train through a program that assembles said passenger's memory—a sort of final temporal burst of energy from a dead man's brain. How this subjective memory reconstruction can know how the other people around this particular victim will react to Colter's differing actions and be aware of information of which he was unaware at the time is left unspecified, but the key comes in a negative. This is not time travel, Rutledge emphasizes, but a kind of alternate reality.

If it makes little sense in the analysis, the gimmick's lack of pure logic barely matters. Ripley doesn't linger on the behind-the-scenes science of the program—only on its purpose with hints, and later the extension, of its metaphysical repercussions.

In those, the film is surprisingly affecting, for if Colter's job is to find the bomb and the terrorist behind it, then logically his ultimate goal would be to stop the train from blowing up and, hence, save the lives of all onboard. He wants this to be his objective (The little but solid character information Ripley shuffles in tells us such), but based on the limitations of Rutledge's program, this is an impossibility. The train has been destroyed; these people are already dead. Anything Colter does will not change the past simply because it cannot do so. He finds this out the hard way, as he brings Christina off the train with him to investigate a possible suspect. His persona's end is unchangeable, even under altered events—only the means change (An explosion becomes a speeding train as he stumbles onto the tracks).

As he repeatedly goes back into those final eight minutes of his avatar's life, he develops feelings for Christina. "You're beautiful, kind, and painfully honest," he tells her one time, not without a sense of mourning. He has begun to fall in love with a specter, trapped in a moment in time—one he is somehow a part of without fully being in it.

Instead, Colter's aim is to stop another, more destructive attack planned by the person who set and detonated this previous bomb. Without the restraints of laws or social mores, he eyes everyone with suspicion—stalking the only man he's seen enter the bathroom, pretending to be transit security to force everyone to shut off their electronic devices, digging a gun into the chest of a college kid who seems to turn around when Colter calls the previously dialed number on a cell phone used as a trigger for the bomb. Building on his previous visits to the train, he begins to develop a kind of investigative shorthand (Jones does the same in a montage of failed attempts), quickly growing tired of having to die multiple times and frustrated with Goodwin and Rutledge's hesitation to be forthcoming about his own situation in the chamber.

Jones juggles two threads of Colter's existence with a deft hand. For all its creative modifications of basic conventions (Chris Bacon's Herrmann-esque string score sets the atmosphere perfectly for them), Source Code does not rely solely them. In between the tiers of reality—in the background of the infinite reflections (illustrated quite effectively by Chicago's Cloud Gate sculpture)—lies a beating heart that recognizes the human cost behind it all.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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