Friday, 1 April 2011

Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011) Review

Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga in Source Code (2011)

In 2009 Duncan Jones made a name for himself with the claustrophobic, existential drama Moon, which mixed cerebral pondering with high-concept excitement. Some hailed him the new voice of sci-fi, and certainly his debut feature was the best film the genre had seen in years. Two years later and we have Source Code, an equally ambitious film which, while musing over the same ideas as Moon (isolation and identity) mainly opts for thrills and spills. Which is fine, because from the Hitchcockian get-go Source Code is a film fully aware of itself and genre conventions. Some reviewers have picked up on plot holes and impossibilities, but if you want to draw parallels between this film and reality you may as well stop at the shape-shifting time machine which can re-assign one person to the last eight minutes of anothers life. Clearly - clearly - the plot is left over from some Star Trek or Twilight Zone special, and is also fondly reminiscent of the works of Philip K. Dick, who has been posthumously influencing sci-fi for the past thirty years now. What matters to the film is internal logic, and the way Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) deals with his subjective reality. What matters is unraveling the mystery of who bombed a train heading for Chicago, and how the tale unfolds. The answer, happily, is that until the final ten minutes it does so with effortless style, intelligence and suspense...

Cynics have been calling out influences as far as Groundhog Day (Ramis, 1993) and Deja Vu (Scott, 2006) but Jones' film has its own identity and deserves to be treated as a standalone film. If there is an obvious influence it's the aforementioned Master Of Suspense, who would have likely tackled the story of Source Code in much the same way - with plot twists, set-pieces and black humour. The opening credits sequence, set to a Herrmann-esque score by Chris Bacon, sees the camera swooping over cityscapes and taking in the sight of trains crossing, recalling Hitchcock's own Strangers On A Train (1951). The film makes use of space in the same way as Hitchcock's claustrophobic thrillers (Rope, 1948 and Dial M For Murder, 1954) and the emerging romance between Stevens and commuter Christina (Michelle Monaghan) is fraught with horrifying obstacles. There are individual moments that recall different films - Twelve Monkeys (Gilliam, 1995) is another one - but these comparisons are inconsequential because they don't affect the enjoyment of Source Code. Ultimately it's a concept film - a solider has eight minutes to find a bomb; explosion; repeat. Each time we re-enter the train it is under slightly different circumstances - we have new information, suspects to focus on. As we do this Jones' provides another clue to make us question Stevens' judgement. He builds up a rhythm, as does the film, and ultimately pacing provides the most winning element. Just as you're getting involved in the action we're pulled back into existential drama and character study, but the shifts are sublimely handled, and rather than feeling disjointed they essentially inform each other. Back at the government control centre the film has more mixed results. Vera Farmiga is terrific as the conflicted commander in charge of Stevens' - her performance is played expressively. Her dialogue is mainly restricted to exposition but shot in close-up it's always on her face to communicate emotion. There is a sadness beneath her eyes; a questioning of morality. If only Jeffrey Wright employed the same sort of subtlety - instead he plays it up like a pantomime dame, chewing the scenery and spitting it out in an oddly accented performance which sees him hobbling and philosophically rambling for most of the running time.

Jones is the real hero of the piece, however, employing shot structure and framing which perfectly reveals mystery and character; it helps, of course, that the film also features flawless editing. But the director always seems to know the right button to push. One beautiful shot sees Stevens and Christina looking into each others eyes for probably the first time; up until now she had been part of a simulation - the beautiful distraction. Now he realizes not only that he can help her, but that he wants to help her. In that moment Stevens makes himself totally vulnerable. It's as if the pain of seeing her perish is becoming more unbearable than the reality he will soon be zapped back to - the reality of not knowing the status of his comrades, or being unable to speak to his father. As he stares into her eyes, and deeper into her soul, he asks her to tell him that "everything will be alright." The clock ticks; she stares back. "Everything will be alright" she says. At that an explosion goes off at the back of the train. In slow motion the flames ascend the vehicle towards our protagonists, who still linger on each other. The flames engulf them, but all is not lost. He can go back to her. It's a powerful image, and one which moved me very much. I should probably mention Gyllenhaal and Monaghan at this point too, who are both excellent in the film, especially Gyllenhaal who makes for a charismatic and compelling leading man.

It does though, as so many of these films do, fall apart at the end. Here Jones abandons his concept and tries to tie everything together, bringing slushy romance to the forefront all the while trying to explain every miniscule plot detail. The film practically self-implodes under the weight of conformity and explanation, leaving the viewer with sentimental hogwash as the denouement to what has previously been a smart, slick sci-fi ride. Why must the romantic leads end up together, despite all internal logic? Why must we know every little detail of the plot, which in fact only serves to unravel the problems further? Instead of answering questions Jones creates them - the last five minutes make no sense whatsoever, even in the context of the hi-tech world, and I was just left scratching my head at how a film this good ended so flatly. It's just - and I say this with great sadness, for Source Code is a wonderful film - tacky. So, highly recommended, but with caution. Certainly those with an aversion to 'Hollywood' endings will be left with very little to desire...


  1. I really like your review, although I thought the last 5 minutes was more than a cliche happy ending - I saw it as an illustration of the concept of parallel universe.

  2. @ Anonymous
    Yes, the ending certainly suggests the idea of a multiverse, but that seemed very tacked on to me. The problem is that it explicitly goes against the rules of the Source Code. That ending only exists because the film was too afraid not to have the clichéd happy ending of the couple being together, and therefore it explains away all the science (fiction) into the realm of contradictory nonsense. If you're going to pull that idea out of the bag, you should really do it half an hour earlier, because it's really quite interesting. Thanks for the kind words on the review though, appreciated!