Mania Grade: A-
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- Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden
- Written by: Ben Ripley
- Directed by: Duncan Jones
- Studio: Summit Entertainment
- Run Time: 94 minutes
- Rating: PG-13
Mania Review: Source Code
Once more, with feeling.
By Rob Vaux
April 01, 2011
Science fiction for the thinking man isn’t quite an endangered species, though it remains sufficiently thin on the ground to raise a few eyebrows when it crops up. It takes a lot to come up with something truly original in a genre chock full of geniuses. And yet, every now and then, someone delivers a notion that truly catches us by surprise. Lightning strikes twice with director Duncan Jones, who did it once with the incredible Moon and now follows that up with the equally impressive Source Code.
To be sure, it can’t claim complete originality, owing a large debt to Groundhog Day among other films. But Jones understands how to trick his tale out in wholly unexpected ways, as well as keeping the characters in the forefront without sacrificing his nifty concept. Indeed, the only frustrating thing about it is that you can’t reveal too much without giving it all away. We begin on a Chicago commuter train, where decorated helicopter pilot Coulter Stevens(Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in another man’s body. In eight minutes, a bomb will detonate on the train, killing everyone onboard. He needs to deduce the bomber’s identity or the whole city may be next.
The good news is that he has more than one chance to get it right. How? Well, that’s part of the fun, as is the strict eight-minute deadline. How much can you learn in that time before everything goes boom? Stevens finds out the hard way as he slowly assembles the clues to determine whodunit it. Source Code works marvelously well on that simple level, delivering a twist-filled mystery that doesn’t skimp on the surprises. But Jones also thinks through the concepts behind it, then delivers them to us in a manner we can readily grasp. That’s no easy task when discussing wormholes and quantum physics.
Source Code uses its core notion to reveal an even more fascinating puzzle: Stevens periodically wakes up in an airtight capsule, while a dodgy Air Force captain (Vera Farmiga) sends him instructions through a remote camera. He smells a rat, but can’t determine the source of his fears, even as he gets zapped back to the train again and again.
Jones develops his dilemma with breathtaking clarity, keeping us focused on the key questions rather than bogging us down in technobabble and minutiae. That allows the characters to breathe a little bit, and even engage in an odd romance before the train explodes, as Stevens meets a pretty commuter (Michelle Monaghan) with the hots for his host body. Source Code has the self-respect to let them act like real people instead of just constructs of the plot. They react just as you or I would in similar circumstances: asking the same questions and freaking out in the same fittingly human manner. It provides a foundation for the proceedings that most sci-fi thrillers merely gloss over.
It also respects us enough to leave a few questions unanswered: something to chew over in the coffee shop afterwards while we digest the sights onscreen. Most films like to spoon feed us their points, pandering to the lowest common denominator lest somebody grow confused. Source Code understands the difference between “intrigued” and “lost,” and gives us exactly what we need to draw our own conclusions.
To wrap such thoughtfulness in such a taut and entertaining package is a rare feat indeed, one that truly makes science fiction a thing of beauty. Source Code oversteps its bounds only occasionally, and never so far as to seriously threaten its premise. Indeed, such moments only show how quietly daring it can be: willing to take some real risks rather than settle for business as usual. In the end, it may just be a thriller, but even straightforward entertainment can engage our intellect if approached with care and respect. Source Code delivers a marvelous good time, and leaves us with something more than an empty tub of popcorn for our troubles. In this era of would-be franchises and formulas scraping the bottom of the barrel, that constitutes a minor miracle.