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MOVIE REVIEW: Source Code (2011)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Duncan Jones avoids a sophomore slump after Moon by making an engaging Dickian, even Malzbergian (yes, you read that right), thriller.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Soldier Colter Stevens wakes up in someone else’s body as part of a time travel operation to learn the identity of a bomber of a Chicago commuter train.

PROS: Strong, compelling script from Ben Ripley; engaging direction by Duncan Jones; good cast, with an especially strong performance from Jake Gyllenhaal; suspenseful execution reminiscent of Run, Lola, Run; good blend of action, character, existential angst.
CONS: One or two too many climaxes; lead character doesn’t so much solve the mystery as luck into it; drags somewhat as the movie approaches its conclusion; confusing title; clumsy and rather nonsensical discussion of its scientific bases; quantum handwaving.

“If you had only one minute left to live,” Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) asks Christina (Michelle Monaghan) mere seconds before their train explodes from a bomb hidden on one of the cars, “what would you do?” It is a good question, and one that Stevens asks several times, for in Source Code he finds that he is reliving eight minutes of another person’s life over and over again. Stevens, a captain who flew helicopter missions in Afghanistan, wakes to find himself on a commuter train. Only he shouldn’t be on the train. And, when he looks in a bathroom mirror, he finds somebody else staring back at him. Confused? Stevens is, certainly, until the train explodes and he wakes up again, this time strapped into a capsule, where Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) asks via video monitor if he has completed his mission.

From its opening moments, it’s obvious that writer Ben Ripley and director Duncan Jones enjoy this disorientation. Some viewers, especially those who don’t read science fiction or have never seen an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, will not share that enjoyment, but many others will, and will enjoin fully Source Code‘s central conceit: a person can be sent into another person’s body for the last eight minutes of his life. In this case, Captain Colter Stevens enters the body of a school teacher bound for Chicago to determine the identity of the train’s bomber and prevent the bombing of a second target. And he must go back each time, eight minutes before the explosion, until he identifies the bomber. Think Richard Lupoff’s “12:01 PM” crossed with the television series 24.

How is this possible? Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), inventor of the Source Code, attempts an explanation involving quantum physics and alternate realities which sound like sections of the works of Neils Bohr and Max Planck, as well as passages of Brian Greene’s new book The Hidden Reality, subjected to William Burroughs’s cut-up technique and submitted to the publishers of CliffsNotes. While New Age gurus have been using quantum mechanics to hawk second-rate spiritualism for the past forty years, movies only recently have begun dabbling in what they believe are the implications of the Copenhagen Interpretation, and, sadly, seem to understand it about as well as pseudo-religious hucksters with crystals for sale. Additionally, the term “source code,” which is the text of a computer program, may have had some meaning in the original script but appears to have gotten lost in subsequent drafts. Wright rushes through the explanation of how it all works with conviction and determination, though it might have less to do with his need to thwart the bomber than with the fact that he might not understand what he’s saying. Physicists in the audience will have a field day pointing out the rubber science tied into very pretty knots…if they don’t grow frustrated with Rutledge himself, another in a pantheon of mad scientists that populates way too many movies.

Does it matter? No, because the cast and director Jones sell Source Code with strong performances and deft direction. This is Jones’s second movie. His first was Moon, one of the few true quill science fiction movies in a good long while, and a good movie that was too. With Source Code, Jones tries a blend of science fiction, thriller and romance that works far better than The Adjustment Bureau, released earlier this year (see my review), in part because he knows both how to make the genres work to his advantage. This is especially true with the thriller elements, which often seem mutually exclusive to the concerns of science fiction. Specifically, Source Code does not succumb to the thriller’s fundamental flaw. In the thriller, sabers may rattle, but in the end the protagonist manages to keep the world in the same shape it was before bad people decided to do bad things. It upholds the status quo, keeping the social order instead of transforming it, even if the transformation is horrifying. Without giving anything away, Source Code subverts that flaw, transforming it into a genuinely science fictional narrative, though it falls into the all-too-common trap of providing one climax too many. Moreover, the relationship that develops between Stevens and Christina is far more believable and far more satisfying than in the previously mentioned Dick adaptation.

Oddly enough, despite the reality-bending premise, Source Code‘s primary inspiration comes not from Philip K. Dick but Barry Malzberg, who in the 1960s and 1970s tried to make a career out of existential despair for the United States, space travel and science fiction itself. Each return journey Stevens makes is reminiscent of the insane narrator and the likely equally insane space captain (who, it turns out, might not even exist) of Beyond Apollo; all that’s missing is the mantra, “This will never work out.” Stevens is trapped in an existential hell, forced to relive the same eight minutes over and over, sent literally to the point of death and beyond…and is then yanked back. That Stevens never appears to actually leave the time capsule into which he’s been stationed (trapped? imprisoned?) only solidified this particular reading, which, additionally, also owes a great deal to one of Kafka’s parables…though Source Code isn’t as grim as Kafka. Or Malzberg.

Not that anybody seeing Source Code will care much about these things. A few will dislike the Run, Lola, Run qualities enough to throw up their hands in frustration, but most will likely enjoy the ride, right up to the end of the line.

3 Comments on MOVIE REVIEW: Source Code (2011)

  1. Thanks Derek.  I do plan to see this pretty soon, myself.


    It’s good to see that Jones did not have a sophomore slump. I really liked Moon (its difficult to find someone, especially a genre fan, who saw it and did not like it).

  2. Nick Sharps // April 1, 2011 at 9:37 am //

    Thanks a lot for this review! I didn’t plan on seeing this one but you have swayed me. Of course, if it sucks I’m coming to your house to collect my wasted admission fee…;)

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