Source Code Review
Duncan Jones’ follow-up to Moon comes with different expectations than those which met his debut. No longer is he the son of David Bowie trying to break into the film industry following a handful of music video and advertising campaigns; now he’s the man behind a critically acclaimed science fiction sleeper hit, and deservedly so. Perhaps erring on the side of caution, Source Code exists on the same plain as Moon, another sf headscratcher providing the audience with plenty to ponder over its brisk 90-plus minute running time. Replacing the two Sam Rockwells and the exact nature of their co-existence in the previous film, we have Jake Gyllenhaal sharing a train with a bomb in present day Chicago. The central mystery relates to the bomb’s presence - who put it there and why - but this turns out to be just one of a number of puzzles occupying both Gyllenhaal’s character and the audience.
The science fiction elements, and Source Code’s title, are provided by the revelation - a mere eight minutes in - that Gyllenhaal isn’t actually on the train but rather occupying one of the passenger’s bodies in a manner akin to TV’s Quantum Leap. Furthermore, he can re-enter that person’s body repeatedly, so if the bomb goes off he merely starts back at square one (i.e. eight minutes before explosion) to further his investigations. Thus the time on the train essentially becomes an interactive Rashomon for Gyllenhaal. Whenever he goes back he can explore another area of the train, get to know another person, test out theories and slowly whittle down the suspects. In the meantime he has other ‘real world’ mysteries to unravel such as why he last remembers serving in Afghanistan and nothing in-between, why he is undertaking this current mission and what technology is being used and its ramifications. Some questions lead to further questions which I won’t spoil here for those who missed out on Source Code during its theatrical run.
Jones handles proceedings with a calm efficiency. He keeps things slick without overburdening the plot with unnecessary visual flashiness. Certainly, CGI is in heavy use, but rarely for its own sake. Interestingly Source Code unfolds in what is essentially ‘real time’. Each eight-minute investigation on the train unfolds in exactly that period of time (save for one in which Gyllenhaal is knocked out cold) whilst his conversations in the real world in-between these excursions are similarly unhindered by edits excepting the rare occasion. This approach prompts Jones to maintain a tightness which the CGI, for the most part, is there to aid. He has room for a little playfulness - the liberal placement of various red herrings, for example - but never enough to allow things to get out of hand. Indeed, the most refreshing element to Source Code is its brisk running time; a welcome change to the bloat increasingly commonplace in Hollywood genre filmmaking.
Unfortunately Ben Ripley’s screenplay isn’t quite so lean. It’s arguable that Source Code is a little too full of various puzzles and mysteries for its own good. The central questions relating to the bomb, its whereabouts and those who have placed it there were surely enough to maintain a crisp piece of thriller filmmaking with a science fiction twist. Yet Ripley (who had previously written a pair of Species sequels) over-indulges himself on the sf angle and it’s to the detriment of the film overall. Firstly, it is difficult to care quite so much for such aspects as Gyllenhaal and his superior Jeffrey Wright debating the qualities of the film’s realities when we’re not entirely certain ourselves (or indeed themselves, given Gyllenhaal’s novice status as a ‘time traveller’). Secondly, it removes some of the tension away from the central bomb plot which can only prove harmful to the film as whole. With regards to the former Wright seems fully aware of such shortcomings - and the fact that he is there primarily to deliver various bits of exposition - and so occupies his time with a highly mannered performance complete with limp and slightly strangled delivery. With regards to the latter this dissipation of tension is somewhat ruinous given that the suspense is the driving force behind Source Code. Without it Jones’ film can feel a little empty.
To return to Moon, that film divulged its main ‘reveal’ around the midway mark but still had the emotional undertow to maintain both audience interest and satisfaction. Source Code has many more reveals to make yet beneath them we find only the barest of underpinnings, emotional or otherwise. (What is there mainly comes together for the final scenes which many wrote off at the time as a cop out, although I had less of an issue with them than other aspects of Ripley’s screenplay.) Moreover, the spreading of the tension across the numerous mysteries only serves to emphasise this thinness; indeed, it is seemingly inherent in the entire script. Admittedly, certain elements are justified in this respect - how could we expect Gyllenhaal’s character, or others’, to become fully rounded when they’re primarily concerned with diverting disaster in a real-time setting? - yet the more you ponder Source Code, the more its frailties reveal themselves.
With that said, Jones’ direction manages to paper over such cracks and keep proceedings diverting enough over the duration. The sharp pace and emphatically minimal approach maintain interest, whilst the nods in the direction of Hitchcock, The Manchurian Candidate and the aforementioned Quantum Leap are all nicely placed, underplayed and raise a smile. Yet whilst Jones acquits himself well Source Code is ultimately something of a disappointment in the wake of Moon. It demonstrates that he can produce Hollywood genre entertainment, but surely we now expect a little more from him - plus there’s no shortage of directors whom Hollywood has imported to perform such services. Hopefully this will prove to be his Panic Room (another slick tale told in minimal locations with minimal fuss that was let down by a slim screenplay) and be but a generic blip - albeit not without its defenders - in a career that ultimately demonstrates greater ambition.
Source Code is being released in the UK by Optimum as either a ‘Double Play’ edition containing both Blu-ray and standard DVD or as a standalone DVD. For review purposes they supplied the Blu-ray disc only and as such the following assessments with regards to presentation quality and special features relate purely to those as found on the Blu.
Source Code retains its 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the UK Blu-ray, here presented in 1080p using an AVC-MPEG4 encode. It’s worth noting that Jones has used plenty of post-production manipulation when it comes to his film’s visual qualities and as such the slightly saturated look and occasional (comparatively) overt grain is no doubt intentional. Colour levels are as we should expect given these circumstances whilst the blacks are sufficiently solid. Close-ups in particular reveal a terrific level of detail, although such a quality is immediately apparent from the word go: the opening shots over the Chicago skyline demonstrate perfect clarity. In other words, no problems to mention and a presentation just as we would hope for from such a new production. (Note that the ‘pixilation’ occurring when Gyllenhaal transitions between the real world and that of the ‘source code’ is wholly intentional and not the result of compression issues or any other problems during the transfer stage.) As for the soundtrack, here we find similarly fine results. The choice is between two-channel LPCM stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. And in both cases we find a superb handling both the quieter moments and the explosions every minutes. The dialogue is continually crisp, whilst the soundtrack gets on with its job without overpowering proceedings. Optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing are also present.
Despite a reasonably long list of extras, Source Code’s Blu-ray unfortunately offers up little of genuine substance. The ‘Cast and Crew Insights’ piece, for example, is 27 minutes worth of puffery in which Gyllenhaal is described as a “generous human being”, Michelle Monaghan as having “kindness as a human being” and everyone being “great”, “warm”, “fantastic”, “sympathetic” and so on. Elsewhere we find gimmicky inclusions such as the two trivia tracks (one of which devotes itself to various time travels fictions, from Irwin Allen’s Time Tunnel TV series to Robert A. Heinlein’s novel The Door in Summer; the other throwing up a free-for-all of factoids taking in everything from America’s Got Talent to the nature of American driving licenses), the brief animations explaining certain scientific principles central to Source Code’s concepts or a similar piece fronted by Sergei Gukov which is essentially an illustrated audio interview. (All of the featurettes can be watched as picture-in-picture additions or as standalone extras.) As such this leaves only the audio commentary as a genuine attraction amongst these various additions. Here we find Jones, Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Ben Ripley joining forces for an engaging, chatty piece that rarely lets up. It’s an enjoyable listen - the three participants clearly enjoy each other’s company - and indeed a thorough one, with Jones in particular making the effort to explain his reasoning behind various decisions. Admittedly there are few grand revelations, but then it does go much deeper than the ‘Cast and Crew Insights’. Rounding off the package we also find room for the original theatrical trailer.