The manipulation of time and space has provided the premise for many science fiction features since the advent of cinema, with narratives that demonstrate humanity’s theoretical and fictional mastery over the past, present and future a common occurrence. Whilst some such films endure to become undisputed classics of the genre (the Back To The Future trilogy, the Terminator series and 12 Monkeys, for example), others simply resort to derivation (Freejack, Timeline and The Butterfly Effect), with the chasm between the terrific and trying examples blatantly apparent. Over the past decade, two filmmakers have emerged with twin features apiece steeped in the sci-fi tradition of traversing temporal and spatial bounds. The first, American helmer Richard Kelly, wowed audiences with his instant classic Donnie Darko, and then confounded them in equal measures with his misunderstood Southland Tales. The second, British director Duncan Jones, similarly caused a splash with his exceptional debut Moon, and now returns for his second helping with the action-oriented Source Code, starring Donnie Darko’s Jake Gyllenhaal.
Dazed and confused by his surroundings, army helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal, Love And Other Drugs) finds himself sat on a train bound for Chicago. Sharing his row of seats is a woman by the name of Christina (Michelle Monaghan, Due Date), although her apparent familiarity with him is not reciprocated. As his journey progresses, Colter is startled to learn that his companion knows him as teacher Sean Fentress, a realisation compounded when he locates documentation in his wallet that confirms her claim. When the train explodes exactly eight minutes later, Colter awakens confined to a cell, with a television screen bearing the image of Air Force Capt. Goodwin (Vera Farmiga, Up In The Air) his only human contact. After overcoming the shock of his surroundings, Colter discovers that he is part of a secret government initiative called Source Code, which – under the guidance of Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright, Quantum Of Solace) – enables participants to access past events in eight minute bursts. Charged with uncovering the source of the train attack, Colter is sent back into the memories of the now deceased Sean, reliving the voyage over and over again in the hope of preventing further terrorist activity.
Neatly sliding into the obvious space between Groundhog Day, The Matrix and Inception, it is evident from the start of Duncan Jones’ follow-up to Moon that the simple conceit could get tired quickly without something more than the deliberately contrived premise to sustain its momentum. Indeed, much like the recent Christopher Nolan mind-bender, at least half of Source Code is exposition, either on the characters involved in the bombing plot or the nature of the Source Code itself. Like many similar sci-fi outings before it, this is a kind of self-doubt (or audience doubt) that could potentially threaten to run the premise off the rails (so to speak). Ripley’s script never dwells for too long on the intricacies or technicalities of the ‘device’ itself, which is essentially the MacGuffin that propels the twin narratives that drive the story, preferring to concentrate on the character of Coulter and his own grappling with the quantum conundrums that he is perpetually presented with. Yet we never get enough time to really know the man, beyond the repeated meme of his evidently strained relationship with his father, at least not to the levels of intimacy that Moon allowed us. Of course, they are very different in tone, with the earlier film being closer to Tarkovsky or Kubrick in inspiration. This time out, Jones’ seems to be following a spate of successful and innovative films, rather than showing them how it should be done.
The ultimate ‘twist’ is less reminiscent of Jones’ previous works and the sci-fi elements it is derived from, and closer in tone to the earlier work of M. Night Shyamalan. In some ways this is a back-handed compliment, given the latter director’s declining quality of late, but the dependence on this contrivance to wrap things up may ultimately harm the longevity and rewatchability of Source Code. There are some very important themes being explored here, especially in light of recent world events. Like the best science fiction, Jones uses the format as a safe way of commenting on everything from the war on terror to the perils of ubiquitous connectivity, he just never does so with any particular depth. By the time the sentimental ending rolls around, we are no closer to understanding these themes, but perhaps we were never meant to fully comprehend them. Like Coulter, our world view is predetermined by the elements that we have been given permission to see. Yet for the most part, Source Code is a contemplative thriller, the kind that is sure to stand out in a crowded marketplace of even more derivative action pieces. To quote another sci-fi great “That’s no Moon“, but it is an above average thriller.
The Reel Bits: Duncan Jones solidifies his reputation for intelligent science-fiction, although the swifter pace of his sophomore effort hampers any attempt at the kind of contemplative study of humanity that his debut film achieved. Jones is definitely still one to watch, and the seeds are sewn for whatever future he wishes to create next.
Source Code was released on May 5, 2011 in Australia by Hopscotch Films.