Duncan Jones surprised a fair few people in 2009 when his debut feature, Moon, turned out to be really rather good. Made on a relatively shoe-string budget (for a sci-fi flick, at least) Jones gave us picture which heralded him as a talent to look out for in the future.
That future is now the present, and understandably a lot of expectation has anticipated the release of Source Code, his sophomore effort, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga. Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, a man who has been handed a very delicate task: to enter into the identity of a man who was killed in a terrorist attack on a train and, through this process (known as ‘source code’), identify the person responsible for the attack, who is on the same train. The catch is, he can only do this in eight-minute segments (the span of the brain’s residual memory, as explained by Jeffrey Wright’s hobbling Dr. Rutledge) and so the film adopts a Groundhog Day-esque repeating structure, looping back on itself as information is revealed.
Now, there are some gaps in this film’s logic, but spend your time focusing on them while watching and you’ll deprive yourself of what is generally a very enjoyable experience. Don’t bother wondering how Stevens is able to do what he likes within his eight minute jaunts, despite the fact that he is inside the persona of another man who would’ve had to be omnipresent to provide the architecture of his visits. As we move on the film offers some explanations, but none entirely hold water. The plot’s contrivances, though (why does the bomber need to be physically on the train to blow it up? Indeed, why does he need to blow the train up at all, since his real target is elsewhere?), are one of its few weaknesses.
What we end up with is a thriller with some great ideas as its foundation. It has a significantly ramped-up budget compared to Moon but hasn’t lost all of that film’s indie sensibility. Indeed, it isn’t the budget that makes this film work – had the film been made on an identical budget to Moon’s, it would probably be just as good. As a result what CGI there is feels a little unnecessary. But Jones handles the narrative well, allowing Gyllenhaal’s charismatic lead performance to sweep us along, with only minor bits and bobs of trickery along the way. Crucially our protagonist is allowed time to breathe as a character even in a film with a story that demands things don’t stand still for too long.
The film takes the story’s concept seriously (this leads to a genuine sense of meaning underlying the action, as opposed to popcorn fluffiness), which is to its credit, but doesn’t refuse its audience a smirk here and there. As Stevens gets involved with the other passengers, most notably Michelle Monaghan’s delightful Christina, he does the classic announcing-things-before-they-happen routine, but it’s played well enough that it doesn’t feel stale.
As things move along Stevens naturally begins to realise that all may not be as it seems, and the nature of his situation becomes more apparent, thanks in part to interactions with Goodwin (Farmiga) and Rutledge (Wright) who are the faces behind the source code operation. We seem them mostly via computer screen, and thankfully they make the required impression. At the beginning Farmiga is the typical voice that knows but doesn’t tell, which is irksome, but develops nicely as time goes by, as does Rutledge, who benefits (and occasionally suffers) from some scenery-chewing work from Wright.
As the film moves towards its finale(s) it becomes apparent that despite the great setup, those involved weren’t quite sure how to finish the thing. It feels like a few good endings were suggested but then, unable to decide which was best, Jones has bolted them all together in a final reel that somehow works but doesn’t quite. But it is dramatically satisfying, which is the main thing, and even nudges some affecting emotional notes which build on the film’s central theme of individual moments, and the value that lies therein.
All in all Duncan Jones has done nothing to suggest that his successful debut was a one-off. This is more mainstream, granted, but it still has ideas and isn ’t afraid to explore them. The bloated ending tries to give more than it has, but this film in general is deserving of credit. Fingers crossed for that third effort, eh Duncan?