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Source Code (2011)

April 1, 2011

written by: Ben Ripley
produced by: Mark Gordon, Jordan Wynn & Philippe Rousselet
directed by: Duncan Jones
rated PG-13 (for some violence including disturbing images, and for language)
93 min.
U.S. release date: April 1, 2011
Director Duncan Jones made an impressive debut two years ago with “Moon”, a thought-provoking psychological sci-fi thriller that firmly placed him on my radar. Usually when I come across a talented new filmmaker, I look forward to him or her tackling a different genre in hopes of seeing something different or better than what we usually find in theaters.  But now after experiencing his second sci-fi thriller, “Source Code”,  I would be perfectly content seeing Jones remain in a genre that could use the intellectual exhilaration he’s delivered. The marketing may be a tad overambitious with this film,  playing up the action and explosions, but if that’s what gets people into theaters then they will surprisingly be treated to the most intriguing and entertaining film of the year so far.
The last thing Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) remembers is piloting a helicopter in Afghanistan, now he finds himself on a commuter train in the body of a teacher. He has no clue how he wound up back in the States much less why the nice girl sitting across from him keeps calling him Shawn. He learns her name is Christina (Michelle Monaghan) and before he can discover who she is and why they are heading to Chicago, the entire train explodes into oblivion, killing everyone. Colter wakes up though, strapped in some kind of capsule, and is informed via computer screen by a strangely sympathetic (yet vague) officer named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), that he’s on a mission. His goal: to find the terrorist who blew up the train he was just on in order to prevent a large-scale attack.

. SOURCE CODE Michelle Monaghan

Colter is continuously sent back on that train through the Source Code, an intricate scientific experiment created by a guy named Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) that sends him into a calculated pocket of time for only eight minutes. Without a say in the matter or a debriefing, a confused Colter has to  repeat the same eight minutes again and again until he finds the bomber, while working through physical and mental disorientation. Will he be able to succeed in his mission, maybe even contact his father to let him know he’s back in the States, and  possibly save Christina, during such a short time frame?
If “Groundhog Day” and “Twelve Monkeys” got together and had a baby,  it would grow into a frantic child called “Source Code”.  A child that one can’t help but to smile as it tries to chase its tail, that is. The story  plays like the best episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, in that we are at times just as confounded as Colter is. Such confusion is an appropriate place for Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley to hook the audience. Since the storyline is at times predictable and yet somehow nevertheless enthralling, it is oddly unique in its success. I found myself investigating every frame, especially each return trip Colter takes, in an effort to distinguish new clues or answers to the big bang to come.
If I responded in such a way to this hybrid of Hitchcock and Rod Serling, then it’s no surprise that it’s a film that warrants repeated viewings and endless discussion.  Indeed, I anticipate hearing a variety of perspectives on the film’s endings. That’s right, it does feel like the film could end on a perfect and deserving emotional note, and then there’s an added thought-provoking coda that was difficult to balk at.  
SOURCE CODE Jake Gyllenhaal
Sure, you have to buy into all the weird science to really get into the film, but between the captivating visuals Jones employs and the film’s curious characters, such immersion is effortless. While the bizarre and well-crafted concept keeps us on our toes, it’s the actors that reel us in. It’s fun watching Gyllenhaal go from confused to delirious to determined, as he exhibits a strong emotional resonance that equals the needed physical presence. Each time Colter repeats the eight minutes, it’s a delight to see the changes Gyllenhaal and Monaghan make to what becomes a familiar sequence. I also got a kick out of what the always interesting Jeffrey Wright does with his role, serving up an order of quirk and ham on wry. And then there’s Farmiga, who gives more character to Goodwin in just her expressions and responses, making her one of the more mysterious roles in the film. Although Gyllenhaal’s Colter has to face the stakes head on, it’s these supporting roles that really flesh out the suspense and mystery in the story.
Despite hitting many right notes, the film isn’t without its flaws. Some of the weak spots may seem like picking nits and will likely go unseen by others, but they were hard for me to ignore. For example, the beginning of the film has a series of quickly edited aerial shots of Chicago’s skyline that scans over Lake Michigan and zips through the Chicago River, while composer Chris Bacon goes out of his way to remind us we’re about to watch a thriller. Only we already know what kind of film it is going in, therefore these shots seemed to be a bit much during opening credits that could have slowly led us in to the story. Plus, these shots establish a location when they should’ve just planted us right into Colter’s situation immediately. Overall, I would have preferred a tart that would’ve allowed the situations themselves to grow in intensity. 
SOURCE CODE Vera Farmiga
The other element that pulled me out of the film has to do with me being a Chicagoan. It happens with just about every film made in the Windy City. They get the geography all wrong. Here, the train they are on is northbound, making its way downtown, yet the main stop featured in the film is Glenbrook, a northern suburb. Huh? Also, the train is supposedly headed into Union Station but its final destination is basically Millennium Park, by way of the South Shore line. What the what?
Now, I know most of the film was shot in Montreal but at some point the filmmakers have to realize that actual Chicagoans will be watching the film,  noticing glaring inaccuracies…..or maybe that’s just me (seeing as how I could also provide a list of other films that throw Chicago geography out the window). On top of all that, the film has one of the worst posters of the year (thus far, count on many more). It’s both an insult and an assault to basic aesthetics. Okay, that’s enough….end of rant.
Regardless of all that, there is still plenty to enjoy here. Since I enjoyed what Duncan Jones and Sam Rockwell did with “Moon” so much, I was a little hesitant knowing this was going for a more conventional action thriller.  Could the acting be as intense and challenging as Rockwell’s work? Would Jones deliver a film just as unique? Well, I’m glad I resigned myself to having an open mind to this fantastic sophomore picture. Like “Moon” there are layers to be uncovered in “Source Code”, some of which will even make you think about the way you live your own life. For a sci-fi thriller, that’s impressive and just one of the reasons why I would love to see Jones keep making such surprising and captivating films in this genre.

 RATING: ***1/2



9 Comments leave one →
  1. windi noel permalink
    April 1, 2011 11:04 am

    I LOVED “MOON”, didn’t realize this was the same guy who brought us that movie. That changes my perception a lot. I did not care for the previews, it just seemed like another action flick with a ‘twist’, and frankly looked a little ‘yawn’, been there done that…. Flash Foward anyone? (was the the name of the awful Cage movie?)

    But, based on your review, I think I’ll make time to go see it after all. 🙂

  2. John permalink
    April 2, 2011 2:22 pm

    The geographic inconsistencies bothered me, too. But my wife, who lived in Chicago as a child and grew up in the suburbs, didn’t notice. But then, she also gets dreadfully lost when she goes into the city.

    • April 3, 2011 1:56 am

      This will probably be your beef with every other film shot in a city you’re familiar with, as movies are shot for look and not to be city guides. Having such problems with other films has or will probably pull you away from some good ones. I direct your attention to HIGH FIDELITY if you REALLY want to be frustrated by a spacially-challenged but awesome film set in Chicago.


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