Review: Source Code
True science fiction cinema is an endangered species. The wary musings on the implications and consequences of mankind’s “progress” that define the best of the genre are left on the cutting room floor, the mainstream content to slap the hi-tech surface aesthetic on traditional action or fantasy structures that often don’t have much on their mind. So then it’s a relief when we receive a film like Source Code. Duncan Jones’ follow-up to his terrific Moon is a cannily crafted thriller that imbues its setup with a fascinating science fiction premise that calls up notions of mortality and identity, much like the best work of Phillip K. Dick, and for much of the film it follows through on this setup to achieve some surprising intellectual and artistic highs. Unfortunately, like so many ambitious projects funded by the Hollywood popcorn machine, the film also doesn’t have the good sense to end where it should, nervously drawing back from its beautiful ledge in favor of something more comforting and recognizable.
Source Code stars a surprisingly versatile and ever engaging Jake Gyllenhall as Colter Stevens (awesome name), a man on a strange mission even he is not aware of until he’s right in the middle of it. Through a new technology that allows someone to be sent back into a retrieved eight minutes of another consciousness, a so-called “source code” before the subject’s death in a terrorist attack on a commuter train, Stevens is tasked with finding out who blew up the train so that an expected second attack can be prevented. If he fails to do so before the train blows up, the end of the inhabited mind’s life brings Stevens out of the experience and back to what he presumes is the real world, a strange capsule which seems like the inside of a damaged aircraft. Then he is sent back to try again. The result is a kind of sci-fi Groundhog Day, with each time through the eight minutes similar yet individual and malleable. But to keep suspense a factor, there is a limited amount times Stevens can go back into the source code, since a nuclear attack on the nearby city of Chicago is impending in the present time.
The science that makes all this possible isn’t entirely explained by the government officials (notably Vera Farmiga, doing a whole lot with a thinly written role) communicating with Stevens via video from an unnamed facility, and our confusion and curiosity parallels his, as does our exploration of what it means for the people involved. It’s explicitly stated that this is NOT a time machine. Nothing Stevens does when sent back to those eight minutes will change reality or save the people on board, including the beautiful and charming woman (Michelle Monaghan) sitting across from him who, after numerous run-throughs of this time frame, he begins to fall for. His mission is to prevent future deaths. These people are all doomed.
It’s the notions of fractured identity and impending, unavoidable mortality that lend Source Code its surprising heft, especially in the first hour, and in that sense it dips into the same thematic well as Moon, also a hard science fiction identity crisis livened by knowledge of a short shelf life. Stevens is forced, time and time again, to inhabit the identity of a doomed soul and interact with other people who in chronological terms are already dead, and who Stevens is told will remain dead no matter what he does within this retrieved eight minutes of consciousness. I won’t reveal further plot developments, but I will say that the film manages to rise above its thriller trappings and achieve a rather astounding moment of grace, a perceived climax that defies both cliche and assumptions about happy endings. It’s a moment that lifts such heavy thematic loads as cruel cosmic immutability and the idea of an afterlife. It rises organically from the characters and the situation, and demands philosophical examination.
But then the film doesn’t end. Much like Stevens, it refuses to accept a challenging summation free from explanatory denouement and opts for a well-worn science fiction trope that feels decidedly more pat, and which doesn’t pay respect to what has come before. And that’s a shame, because even though the dearth of true science fiction films can make most any noble attempt seem a rescue for a neglected genre, Source Code really is a good film that manages to build a bridge to possibly becoming really good. It just refuses to cross it.