Source Code (2011) – Directed by Duncan Jones – Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden, Russell Peters, and Scott Bakula.
Much like The Adjustment Bureau and About Time, SOURCE CODE is a science fiction movie where the sci-fi sits beneath the story. It’s not that science fiction is absent from these movies, but rather that science fiction creates the given that allows for a subtle alteration to another genre. Bureau is a love story, About Time is a family drama, and SOURCE CODE is a detective story.
The mystery that needs solving is a terrorist attack on a commuter train headed to Chicago. The military is using a new technique developed by Dr. Rutledge (Wright) called “Source Code,” which allows them to send the brain of severely injured Air Force pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) into a program to relive an eight minute sequence of our reality that leads up to a bomb detonating on that train. They can do this based on the lasting “recording” inside the brain of a dead man named Sean Fentress. When Colter goes inside the Source Code, he is Fentress, but he can walk around and have different experiences each time because we wouldn’t have a movie without it. Think of it as Colter being able to walk around as if he were inside an open world video game, like the Grand Theft Auto series. The military simply wants Colter to solve the mystery of the bomber’s identity in order to prevent a second bombing inside Chicago, but Colter is understandably interested in how this all works, since the movie opens with him waking up on the train inside the Source Code with no knowledge of how he got there.
In yesterday’s review of Jack the Giant Slayer, I talked about how hiring famous actors can sometimes fail to help a film. In that movie, the presence of Stanley Tucci and Ian McShane don’t add anything to a big, visual spectacle because they get lost in all of the CGI pornography.
It’s a different story in CODE, where the CGI is used neither as a visual background nor a foregrounded dance partner for the actors. Rather, the CGI in CODE is effectively no different than an old TV show using wavy lines to indicate they were about to disrupt the narrative chronology. The two realities of CODE – the narrative present and the “Source Code” past – are largely CGI-irrelevant. The “source” timeline has a train explosion but that explosion signals the end of the “source” experience for Colter and his shift back to the present.
Because it’s not using CGI to create the bulk of your visual experience, CODE needs quality actors (on top of a good script and quality directing, of course) to sustain out engagement. CODE has them. Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright are responsible for carrying the bulk of the load, and all four actors turn in solid performances. The latter three have a largely narrow set of parameters to explore as their characters are tightly defined. Captain Goodwin (Farmiga) and Rutledge are focused on getting Colter through the mission, while Christina (Monaghan) has no idea she’s “reliving” the same moments over and over again.
This puts a huge weight on Gyllenhaal’s shoulders to provide the film with emotional range and he comes through in spades. Gyllenhaal is an interesting actor who can be really good in smaller, drama-based pieces like October Sky and Jarhead, and not so good in big spectacle material like The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia. Those latter two movies aren’t bad because of him, but he doesn’t add anything to those films. Really, that’s not as big a crack as it seems because what it suggests to me is that Gyllenhaal is far more an actor than he is a star.
Looking at his filmography, it’s amazing how many of his films I haven’t seen. (It’s why I didn’t list Brokeback Mountain up above.) Maybe I’ve been faulting Gyllenhaal too much for not being a star and failing to appreciate his talents as an actor. Prince of Persia and SOURCE CODE were released a year apart but I disliked Prince so much that I didn’t watch CODE until today, almost four years later. I should give Gyllenhaal more credit than I do.
The older I get, the more I’m interested in a story’s emotional arc rather than its RPG-driven rules and regulations. I don’t really care if the science here is correct or probably or even remotely possible. Gene Siskel once said you have a to give a film its given, and the given here is that the Source Code program works. That’s enough for me. I’m not pulled out of the emotions of seeing Colter call his dad (Scott Bakula) inside Source Code by wondering how it’s scientifically possible for him to do that. Colter wants to save Christina and the other members of the train explosion, but Rutledge insists this isn’t possible. “It’s not time travel,” he insists. “It’s time reassignment.”
Colter solves the mystery early enough that you know something else is coming, and that twist is that he’s right and Rutledge is wrong. Colter can save the people on the train if he not only solves the crime but completely neutralizes the threat, which allows the reality of the Source Code to seemingly transplant the reality where the bomb went off.
Honestly, even though I just said I was more interested in emotional truths than RPG fealty, I do think SOURCE CODE would have been more satisfying with a downer of an ending for Colter – have him stay the heroic crime solver but let his broken body die. Or let his body live but have the reality of the train explosion continue. I think that ending says more about the human condition, that it reinforces Colter’s realization that life is precious in a far more powerful way than Colter getting to like Sean Fentress’ life as a schoolteacher and partner to Christina.
Even though I’m criticizing the ending, it’s actually a small complaint in the grand scheme. SOURCE CODE is a solidly entertaining movie that had me hooked from start to finish. It never reaches the greatness of Duncan Jones’ first film, the outstanding Moon, but it is a fine film in its own right. It’s a smaller film, and at times it feels a bit like the pilot of a television series because you can see how this story could be easily converted to an hour long formula. Heck, swap Gyllenhaal out for Matthew Fox and CBS could have an entire night dedicated to detective shows starring actors from Lost.