(Source Code, Duncan Jones, US/France, 2011, 93 mins)
Genres can be funny things in the realm of film. Take science fiction, for example. In the wrong hands, the cinematic baggage that label carries can result in little more than explosions, screaming, awful CGI, and characterisation with all the depth of a slow-punctured paddling pool. (Hello, Battle: Los Angeles.)
Of course, there are directors who can overcome the common trappings of the genre to offer worthwhile compensation for two hours in the dark. Take Duncan Jones, who, following on from his memorable debut – the eerie mood-piece, Moon – brings emotional depth, philosophical and ethical quandaries, and, yes, screaming and explosions, to the silver screen with his sophomore effort, Source Code.
Jones’ latest mind-bender follows Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a US Army helicopter pilot who awakes aboard a Chicago-bound commuter train, sat opposite Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a woman who seems to think he’s someone else. Understandably disorientated, Stevens stumbles around the carriage trying to make sense of the situation, finds another man’s face staring back at him from a restroom mirror, and a wallet in his pocket that names him as schoolteacher Sean Fentress.
Before Stevens, or the audience, can come to any conclusions, the first of the aforementioned explosions decimates the train and the good Captain finds himself in what seems to be a high-tech flight simulator. Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) reveals that Stevens was within the titular Source Code – a bleeding-edge system that allows him to live out the last eight minutes of Sean Fentress’ life. The destruction of the train was the first of a planned series of terrorist attacks, the next being a dirty bomb detonation in Chicago. By living out Fentress’ final moments again and again, Goodwin and the system’s creator, Doctor Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), hope Stevens will be able to discern the identity of the bomber and avert the impending disaster.
It’s certainly an attention-grabbing set-up, and one which, with its recurrent narrative thread and fractured timeline, bears comparison to both Chris Nolan’s Memento and the Bill Murray-starring Groundhog Day. Like Nolan’s film, a sombre sense of resignation pervades Source Code. As Farmiga’s character repeatedly tells Stevens, there can be no saving the passengers of the train. His actions, no matter how heroic or ingenious, can have no impact on reality. It’s a head-scrambling notion, and one that becomes considerably more affecting as Stevens forges a relationship with the charismatic Christina. With every eight minute burst pushing the two both closer together and, as the clock ticks down, closer to being parted forever, an air of tragic inevitability haunts Jones’ film.
And that is what differentiates Source Code from its coarser, bombastic genre brothers. Despite the talk of quantum mechanics and alternate timelines, Jones anchors the piece with what is essentially a doomed love story. Beautifully underplayed by Gyllenhaal and Monaghan, the two leads’ relationship evolves by degrees – in seemingly innocuous actions and snippets of conversation that reveals their personalities.
Counterpointing this is Stevens’ complex relationship with Farmiga’s Captain Goodwin. Initially little more than a voice outside the machine, Goodwin spends the first third of Source Code issuing orders and throwing sharp rebukes at Stevens for bringing up ‘irrelevant’ issues like the nature of the programme or the fate of his father. But, as Stevens’ mental and physical state deteriorates and his inherently noble nature shines through, Goodwin’s icy facade gradually fades. What emerges is an intricate, human connection between Stevens’ vulnerable and admirable guinea pig and Goodwin’s minder in conflict over the morality of the system and the need to save countless lives.
That’s right – as with almost every American picture of the last ten years whose synopsis contains the word ‘terrorist,’ Source Code is also a discourse on the need to balance protection with ethics. With the eponymous programme on shaky moral and legal ground – Stevens’ participation is essentially a high tech case of stop-loss – Jones’ latest throws some interesting and prescient questions at its audience. With Stevens forcibly embedded in a system that basically amounts to psychological torture – his every action is futile while every injury and death is as painful as in reality– just how much should we be willing to sacrifice in the War on Terror?
It’s not all bleak, of course. The sharp scripting from relative newcomer Ben Ripley, whose previous credits include the straight-to-DVD horrors (in both senses of the word), Species III and Species: The Awakening, throws some welcome humour amidst the gloom. Stevens’ witty, Groundhog Day-esque ripostes to the looped events of the train – ‘stay out of this, tough guy; it doesn’t end well for you,’ he remarks to an interfering passenger whose jaw he previously broke – are amusingly droll.
Likewise, Gyllenhaal, who seems to have made a career out of playing wounded, fallible heroes, is a fascinating lead. Far from omnipotent within the Source Code, he makes for a refreshingly average detective, frequently missing clues sharp-eyed viewers may pick up on and at times almost comically inept in his investigative methods – his wild-eyed stalking of one potential bomber in a public toilet wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of The Office. It’s an eminently watchable performance which, coupled with Monaghan’s indelible charm, helps to ground Jones’ film despite it’s barely-plausible concept.
Cinematographer Don Burgess, taking over from Moon DOP Gary Shaw, throws some striking shots amongst the otherwise fairly workmanlike camerawork of Source Code. Indeed, a slow pan through the frozen train – spilt coffee stilled in mid-air; lovers’ lips forever locked; questions left refreshingly open – is so effective, both stylistically and emotionally, that you might just wish Jones was brave enough to simply fade to black. Sadly, he, or more probably his producer, was not, and Source Code is left with a Shyamalan-esque ending that pales in comparison to the earlier false close.
Similarly, Jeffrey Wright’s Doctor Rutledge amounts to little more than a stereotype – his walking stick, nowadays apparently a symbol for a morally-dubious man of science, a crutch in more than one sense. Also, the score, by the amusingly monickered Chris P. Bacon, emulates Bernard Hermann’s Hitchcock work a little too closely, resulting in a soundscape that occasionally veers into pastiche.
Nevertheless, Jones’ indelible eye for human drama, coupled with Source Code’s breathless pacing, emotional heft and mind-snaring concept, results in a film at least on par with his debut. One thing’s for sure – with musings on alternate realities, dream states, the power of the mind, and the nature of choice all touched upon in Source Code’s eight-minute loops – Duncan Jones does not make average science-fiction.