Directed by Duncan Jones
Script by Ben Ripley
Musical score by Chris Bacon
Jake Gyllenhall , Jeffrey Wright, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga
What’s a plot spoiler? You can’t review it without minor ones, but I’ll try to hold back surprises.
Philip K. Dick meets Groundhog Day? That’s a point I’ve seen three times. Not quite. This is EARLY Philip K. Dick meets Groundhog Day. Later Philip K. Dick science-fiction novels were incoherent and jumbled. Early ones were the best of the genre. Though any films of Philip K. Dick stories are too often incoherent and jumbled. There’s a genre of sci-fi movies, epitomised by The Matrix, which are beloved of teenage boys. The story is in comic book jerks and twists, and too often you watch the spectacle, not really knowing what’s going on, who’s who, or why it’s happening, or even what people are mumbling on the soundtrack. Or why you sat down to watch this expensively filmed nonsense in the first place.
Source Code has a first-rate sci-fi premise, told with clarity and a well-written script, including well-written dialogue (which is a different thing). I never felt lost in the mire and intricacies of a sci-fi plot, and the makers describe it as a psychological thriller, which is right. It is also classic(al) sci-fi. You introduce an assumption that it’s possible to do something. Then the plot develops logically from that single (absurd) premise. Here the premise is that someone (Rutledge, played by Jeffrey Wright) has developed a process where you can access the short term memory of someone who has just died. That short term memory is eight minutes long. So you can replay the last eight minutes of their life, and more, you can project someone to re-live those last eight minutes, apparently in that person’s body. This is ‘source code’. Or maybe the dead person is the ‘source code’ or maybe the person projected back is ‘source code.’ It doesn’t matter.
Colter (Jake Gyllenhall) finds himself on the train with Christina (Michelle Monaghan)
The movie starts with Colter, a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, waking up to find himself sitting on a train in the suburbs of Chicago. He’s sitting opposite a woman (Christina, played by Michelle Monaghan) who knows him. She is mildly flirty, interested, and he must be halfway through a conversation with her. He goes to the rest room, and looks in the mirror and sees someone else. He has been projected there to become Sean, a teacher, who is travelling on the train. He lives through eight minutes to the disaster, and I don’t think this is a plot spoiler, but look away now … when the train explodes and is consumed by a fireball. Then he is projected back to the ‘capsule’ and we meet his controller, Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), on a TV screen. She is one of the three leads in the film.
Vera Farmiga as Captain Goodwin
Colter is projected back several times for eight minute periods, and his task is to identify the bomber. So the train sequence is repeated with different actions. The time “now”is just after the actual disaster, and the controller knows that the bomb on the train is only the prelude to a much worse attack, because they’ve received a threat. Hence they activate the source code program, which they have been waiting to test. Colter must find the bomber so that they can prevent the second attack. Each time he goes back, he gets further in the search.
Christina (Michelle Monaghan) and Colter / Sean (Jake Gyllenhall) on the train
I thought the potential second attack an unfortunate 24 cliché: the dirty bomb which will kill two million people in Chicago. It might be unavoidable nowadays, but I’ve seen that particular threat on screens too often. What I don’t like about it is that it’s SO big you know it won’t happen, but I think 24 averted it so many times that eventually they had to let it happen. Although like many works of dramatic fiction, the dirty bomb cliché represents one of our greatest global post 9/11 fears. Anyway, saving two million is the mega-motivation which the sub plots, all of which really would be plot spoilers, require.
Colter is also authorized to use any means whatsoever he can to find the bomber. Here the movie scores major points, because while it is just as exciting as any 24 scenario, and he has to get tough and nasty with people, he never resorts to the Jack Bauer level of torture. He is told that it doesn’t matter if he kills someone, because everyone on the train is already dead anyway. This is a simulation of the last eight minutes. Even so, the thumbscrews and electrodes-attached-to-genitals never appear. Good.
There are reminders of so many films … every one that ever took place on a train for starters, from Strangers On A Train, via North by Northwest to both versions of The Taking of Pelham 123, Speed, Silver Streak … dozens of them. But they never do the roof chase. The replayed action is fascinating.
Goodwin and Rutledge
You can’t go into the physics of alternate realities, but the question that looms as Colter gets more attached to Christina, is this: can anything be done to avert the first disaster too, the one which has already happened? This is what Colter wants to attempt, and it’s what Rutledge, the inventor of source code does not want him to try (for reasons which are plot spoilers). The slogan on the movie poster is Change The Past Save the Future which is something of a plot spoiler in itself, as for most of the film, Colter is told that he can’t change things, but only accumulate information to identify the bomber. Anything he does on the train doesn’t count. It’s a simulation of past reality.
Colter in the capsule, as ‘himself.’
There is a brilliant moment, several minutes from the end, where every character freezes on screen. When we walked out of the cinema, both of us said that was where we would have ended the movie. The two people walking out next to us overheard and said it was exactly what they were thinking too. But there are several minutes of film after that, which deepen the story, and add some excellent speculative stuff. The bold place to go was earlier for me, even so. Some films are short. This is 93 minutes, and I’d say ‘concise’ rather than short. The comparisons with Inception are inevitable. I thought it better plotted, much clearer and I also thought it benefitted greatly by being 30% shorter.
It’s often funny, and having set its premise, does so without hesitation, owning up to the absurdity. The Guardian review by Peter Bradshaw gave it a full five stars, and was fulsome in its praise of direction and script, all of which I agree wholeheartedly with. And thanks to that review I went to see it when otherwise I wouldn’t. Bradshaw also points out the similarity between Colter’s conversations with his controller, Goodwin, to A Matter of Life and Death. In this, David Niven, as the WWII fighter pilot in a plane spiralling to the ground, is talking to the female ground controller.
The musical score is rich, and very ‘Hitchcock’ though at one point I felt it veered a tad into sentimentality. I’d be mean and reserve a star though. Four for me. but if anyone gave Inception a four, then this really is a five.