Source Code Review
Cinematic science-fiction seems to going through a bit of a purple patch at the moment. 2010’s brain-teasing Inception was followed by this year’s beautifully bleak Never Let Me Go and the rather fun Philip K Dick adaptation The Adjustment Bureau (we’ll skip straight over Battle: Los Angeles…). But before all of these came Moon, director Duncan Jones’ 2009 throwback to the 1970s heyday of thinking man’s sci-fi. It received wide applause for putting ideas ahead of special effects, making good use of a tight budget and its terrific central performance by Sam Rockwell. Now Jones has moved up to the major league with Source Code, a $30m time-twisting action thriller starring beefed-up Hollywood leading man Jake Gyllenhaal (no stranger to playing chronologically-challenged characters).
To his credit, Jones picked a script for his follow-up project that also toys with some big SF ideas. U.S. Army helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) wakes up to find himself inside the body of another man, sitting on a train headed for Chicago. Having barely had time to adjust to this rather surprising turn of events, a bomb explodes, killing him and the other passengers onboard. Stevens then wakes up again, this time inside a machine, controlled by a mysterious military agency. This machine – Source Code - has the power to send him inside the body of someone else for the last eight minutes of their life: specifically the man who was killed earlier that day by the bomb on the train. A second, far more devastating terrorist attack is imminent, and Stevens has been recruited to discover who the bomber was using the experimental machine to see events before the explosion. But time is running out before the next attack, and Stevens has no idea how he got there, let alone how to go about finding the bomber…
If the above plot description lost you, don’t worry; it only gets more complicated from there. It’s the sort of plot that isn’t merely head-scratching, it makes you wish they handed out a detailed synopsis after the screening to help you make sense of it all – proper wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. While the attempt to make an ambitiously intelligent piece of SF is laudable, Source Code lacks the coherency and polish that Chris Nolan’s Inception boasted, and suffers by comparison. The blame can be laid squarely at the feet of writer Ben Ripley, whose biggest credits to date are a pair of wretched direct-to-dvd sequels to Species. While Source Code is undoubtedly a stronger piece of work, it still occasionally betrays its author’s DTV origins.
There’s a series of stop-start false endings which feel like they are trying to pad out the main story to its brisk 90 minute running time; supporting characters such as Jeffrey Wright’s profiteering scientist feel underwritten and rather vague; and then there’s the central premise which, the more you think about it, feels like a gimmick and doesn’t really make any sense. Without giving too much away, the eight minutes that Stevens is able to relive on the train is not all that Source Code is capable of doing, and credibility is stretched to breaking point with some pretty big questions left hanging at the end (like what happens to the person who Stevens has taken over?)
Thankfully, none of this stops Source Code from being a fun ride. Jones proves himself to be a gifted director, rising majestically above the quality of the script by teasing out its good bits and never letting the pace slow long enough to let confusion turn in to frustration. Credibility issues aside, the repeated eight-minute search for the bomber is a neat device delivered with sufficient red herrings to keep us guessing (even if the bomber’s plan to blow up a train before the larger attack seems pretty dumb). Tension is palpable throughout, helped to a large degree by Gyllenhaal’s likeable Reluctant Hero, very much in the mould of Quantum Leap’s Sam Beckett (to which there is a deliberate and very welcome nod). Despite its flaws, Source Code is a thoroughly enjoyable bolt through time-travel territory, raising questions about fate, parallel universes and that old chestnut: what would you do if you only had 30 seconds left to live and a very attractive woman sitting opposite fancies the pants off you?