It’s always interesting to see an indie film director’s later, more Hollywood-backed efforts after they’ve had a critically acclaimed debut. Director Darren Aronofsky started out with the low budget psychological thriller Pi, cemented his position with the haunting and almost-impossible-to-revisit Requiem for a Dream, and was then given the budget to take things to a much bigger level – giving us the distinctly flawed and unfocussed effects-driven sci-fi drama The Fountain. Thankfully he’s since returned to smaller-scale, more psychologically-driven dramas, and both The Wrestler and Black Swan have rightfully received unwavering critical acclaim and significantly favourable audience reception. Director Vincenzo Natali went down a very similar route, although with perhaps less success. He’s the guy who kicked off with Cube, an excellent, tiny-budget, small-scale sci-fi thriller which took its amazing high concept and worked absolute wonders with it. His next offering, the underappreciated Cypher, wasn’t up to the breakthrough standards of Cube, but was engaging nonetheless, but then it wasn’t until his recent more mainstream sci-fi vehicle Splice, that he fully entered the limelight (doing the lacklustre Nothing along the way). And Splice really was a bit of a disappointment considering the individuals involved and what we had come to expect from them – the end result was little more than a high-brow alternative to Species. It would appear that, with too much money and too much equipment, little by little these directors have had their talent eroded away; or stifled at least. Now the Director of Source Code, Duncan Jones – son of David Bowie – gave us Moon a couple of years back, and it was undeniably great sci-fi, a real tour de force debut outing, which took a miniscule budget and gave us one of the best sci-fi films that’s been released in years. Critically and commercially, it’s been a massive success, so it’s no wonder that all eyes have been on Jones to see what he could come up with for his sophomore vehicle. With Studio backing and a medium budget to work with (considerably greater than what he had for Moon), would he still be able to stay true to his art, or would it be tainted by Hollywood influence?
Now I have to point out that Source Code could arguably best be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of its subject. I can’t guarantee that this will make the experience considerably better, particularly since it’s not the way that I watched the film, but it is certainly worth considering as an option. The unusual, high-concept premise would probably better be enjoyed that way, and since I would recommend this as at least a rental for most people, you could just skip to the end, and check it out before reading the rest of the review.
Captain Colter Stevens is part of a top secret government program. He is on a mission with but one goal – he has just 8 minutes to find the man who planted a bomb on a passenger train before the train blows up. At the end of the 8 minutes, he will be returned to the present reality, debriefed, and then blasted back to start at the beginning of the 8 minutes once again.
There is no doubt that Director Duncan Jones, on the evidence of both his excellent debut Moon, and this solid sophomore vehicle, is a man to watch over the coming years, just to see what imaginative work he comes up with. He has proven himself a superior sci-fi auteur, capable of taking some truly adventurous, intriguing ideas – unique, high concept material – and fashion breathtaking sci-fi thrillers from the captivating premise. Source Code certainly holds true to that rule, overwhelming you with its largely intelligent exploration of quantum mechanics and parallel universes, and striving to be different from all of the time travel adventures that it might draw comparison with.
When watching the movie, you’ll be reminded of numerous other features – from The Matrix to Inception, from The Butterfly Effect to Avatar, from Deja Vu to Groundhog Day. In fact, it has elements of all of these films in it, actually playing out as a cross between a really dark episode of the time-travel TV series Quantum Leap, and Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi thriller Twelve Monkeys. It has many Hitchcockian traits (not least the clever poster art and the thematic score) and also more than a bit of Twilight Zone about it. Yet, despite all of these obvious comparisons, Source Code remains fresh and involving in its own right, striking out by itself with its new ideas, and solid, compelling delivery.
Bolstered by a strong supporting cast, the film is grounded in a remarkably good central performance by Donnie Darko himself, Jake Gyllenhaal. It surprised me because I was a little non-plussed by his efforts in the inconsequential Prince of Persia adaptation (which, too, suffered from time-travel-related flaws), and was worried that he would not be able to hold it together here, but he does indeed make for a very human action hero, bringing the character of Colter Stevens to life in a way in which audiences will likely want to see how he gets through this whole mess, despite the odds against him. To accompany him we have the ever-sparkly Michelle Monaghan (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), an innocent victim on the train, and a girl who Colter is desperate – above all others – to save. And back at home base, the clandestine Government department is headed up by an engagingly quirky Jeffrey Wright (Quantum of Solace), going absolute full-tilt with his eccentricities, and a suitably stoic, but ultimately also human Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air). These are the four main players, and they are all resoundingly good, more than enough to hold things together.
In fact, despite the sometimes crazy, sometimes silly, script machinations – which do have a surprisingly weighty foundation in real science (we’re talking Schrodinger’s Cat here), even if none of the technology used exists, or even has the potential to exist – the thrills also come fast and furious enough to keep you engaged for the relatively short duration, and allow you suspend disbelief during all of those moments where either a) the pseudo-scientific babble becomes too much for you or b) things just fail to make any lasting sense. There are some really great moments, which will have you hooked – from the very first time the explosion takes place, to the toll that the increasingly tough repeat journeys into the 8 minute timeline take on the hero; from the palpably painful jump off the train to the brutal confrontations the lead character has with various other individuals in the timeline. The desperate race-against-time scenario works extremely well to ramp up the tension, and keep things on a heightened state of alert throughout. And perhaps my favourite concept was the home-base reveal, the twist that explains Colter’s predicament back in the experimental facility, which is realised in a stunningly clever, and hauntingly tragic, imagination-becomes-reality fashion.
Source Code is full to the brim with brilliant ideas. Ultimately, though, this is its downfall. The plotting here is arguably more intellectual than Inception (which some would argue is quite a simple smart action thriller, once you understand it, and if you’re prepared to pay attention), using Einsteinian ideas to provide the foundation behind the sci-fi narrative. And I’m not really sure it’s all that easy to get your head around Schrodinger’s Cat; and the sub-atomic-level science that you need to follow in order to go along with parallel universes – which is fine, but if you want to understand Source Code, and you even halfway manage to follow it, you’re going to get totally derailed in the last few minutes. There is a point, towards the end, where everything goes into freeze-frame; and they could have ended it there. And the movie would have been so much better. The subsequent epilogue-ending is the culmination of too many clever ideas, spliced together, and then spun out as a total curve-ball. It makes no sense, in any way, shape or form. Even if you’re prepared to go along with the ‘mock’ science of it, it isn’t even all that satisfying when you realise the consequences of the ending. I can’t tell whether or not this was what the filmmakers originally intended – perhaps they wanted to cut at that freeze-frame moment, but then the Studios, or test audiences (who are infamous for ruining endings) vetoed that option. Who knows? But, for me, it took the score down a good point, and made what could have been another classic sci-fi from Duncan Jones (almost on par with Moon) into another enjoyable but fluffy sci-fi thriller in the same vein as Limitless. Entertaining for the duration, but ultimately frustrating because you think they could have done so much more with the brilliant initial concept.
Still, there’s no question that Source Code will have you gripped for the duration – it’s a bloody good ride, adeptly fusing classic whodunit plotting with novel sci-fi concepts for its twist-and-turn narrative; bolstered by solid performances and brimming with clever ideas, and enhanced no end by a perfectly crafted score that is part North by NorthWest and part Mission Impossible. Clocking in at less than an hour and a half, you will likely be glued to the screen for the good majority of that time, and, certainly for the first time you watch it, it really is smart, exciting sci-fi. And even if it’s brought down by the contrived ending, you probably won’t be disappointed by this fun, frantic ride.
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