SOURCE CODE is a smart, ambitious, engaging sci-fi flick which pays its closest attention to things like ideas and character. Ideas are what all good sci-fi movies have in common, and character is what all good stories have in common. Most nights at the multiplex, you’re lucky to get one or the other, but here you get both.
SOURCE CODE is the story of an Army pilot (Jake Gyllenhaal) who awakens from battle in Afghanistan to find himself sitting across from a pretty girl (Michelle Monaghan) on a commuter train in Chicago. A bomb explodes, and the soldier is told by a mysterious Air Force official (Vera Farmiga) and later, a twice-as-mysterious scientist type (Jeffrey Wright) that he has been sent through time to find the bomber’s identity and avert a more catastrophic bombing which has yet to occur. The scientist is operating a program called Source Code, which runs time on a loop, giving its participant eight minutes at a time to inhabit the body of one of the train’s passengers just before a bomb killed everyone on board. The soldier rushes to fulfill his mission, which gains in urgency as he starts falling for the girl.
My brain aches a little from just typing out all of that, but the movie does an impressively subtle job of making it all eminently understandable at all moments. SOURCE CODE is urgent and suspenseful. I like the way it blends the theoretical and the practical, the emotional and the practical, the youthful and the experienced. It started out with a thoughtful screenplay by Ben Ripley, previously best-known for DTV sequels of the movie SPECIES, which explores the out-there premise without losing track of a humanistic throughline. Duncan Jones, director of 2009’s MOON, stepped in to bring SOURCE CODE to life with an apparently-characteristic sense of energetic experimentation.
The cinematography is by Don Burgess (SPIDER-MAN), who works in a bright, sunny style that is a refreshingly unconventional look for the genre, and the movie was edited by (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), who clearly knows plenty about maintaining an audience’s attention. That’s a crucial ability to bring to a cerebral high-concept which inevitably has to be described as “GROUNDHOG DAY meets INCEPTION.”
The other factor which makes SOURCE CODE is a terrific cast. Jake Gyllenhaal hates my computer’s spell-checker, but coming so soon after the far duller PRINCE OF PERSIA, he’s excellent in his first thoroughly believable action-man role. Michelle Monaghan has a tough role – she has to genuinely, thoroughly win the main character’s heart (and that of the audience) in eight minutes or less – but it’s hard to think of a modern actress better suited to the job. Jeffrey Wright, far and away one of the best and most underrated actors working today, disappears into yet another role unlike any other he’s yet played, and Vera Farmiga (THE DEPARTED) actually kind of warrants all of the same compliments I just gave the other three actors. It doesn’t matter how compelling the premise is if you don’t care about the people who are involved – it’s hard to learn science if you don’t like your teacher – but between the cast and the crew, SOURCE CODE has all of the needed elements.
I probably shouldn’t oversell this movie – it’s more modest than a huge-budgeted, operatic spectacle like INCEPTION, and to me it wasn’t quite as emotionally transcendent. It’s been fairly argued by other critics, who’d also rate SOURCE CODE at a B-plus rather than an A, that the reason for that muted reaction is in the ending, where the movie has to wrap up its theoretical storyline, its plot, and its emotional storyline, and while I found it satisfying on all three terms, that’s probably trying to have it one too many ways. The effect of that satisfaction is diluted. I obviously can’t say any more until I know all you guys have seen the movie. What I can say is that I recommend that you do, because this is a solid mainstream entertainment that makes me curious to see what both Ben Ripley and Duncan Jones do next, and made me respect the talents of its stars either better or even more than I already did. You have to feel good about a movie that tries this hard and almost entirely succeeds.
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