How to merge lives – Source Code review

Source Code – Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga. Directed by Duncan Jones. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

Source Code is about a man sent back through time, into a parallel universe, as another person. I think. Maybe. You’ll have to bear with me as I decipher the goings on of Duncan Jones’ latest mindbender. Let me get this out of the way early: it’s quite good. Perhaps that’s all you need to know before going in. Source Code is an enjoyable Hitchcockian thriller with a unique sense of humour that will serve Jones well; it is proof the young director is ready to handle cerebral blockbusters just like fellow Londoner Christopher Nolan. Do all the threads of his sci-fi universe come together? Almost. Does the final twist make any sense? It makes enough sense. Could you say the same about Nolan’s similar Inception? Definitely, and although Jones’ flick is less ambitious, it’s an hour shorter and handles exposition far better. If you care to tumble down the rabbit hole further, read on.

The film opens with a man awakening on a train. His name is … well, we’ll get to that in a second. He’s played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and as far as he’s concerned, he is Captain Colter Stevens, a fighter-pilot whose last memory is of his helicopter being shot down over Afghanistan. The beautiful woman (Michelle Monaghan) sitting opposite him on the train begs to differ; she reminds him that he is really Sean Fentress, a mild-mannered high school teacher. Needless to say, he freaks out (especially when he goes to the bathroom and sees another face, presumably Sean’s, in the mirror). Before he can be calmed down, the train explodes. Are you still with me? Good, because this is just the first five minutes of the film.

Stevens wakes up (again) in a mysterious capsule, where he is informed via video screen by Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) that he is in “the source code”. It’s a confidential program – established by the heavily-goateed Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) – that allows certain applicants the ability to enter the mind of a freshly-dead body for the last eight minutes of their life. Sean Fentress is one of those brand spanking new corpses, having been victim to a terrorist attack on a train in Chicago earlier that morning. Stevens has been sent into Fentress’ mind/body so that he may find out the person responsible for planting the bomb, and preventing an even more devastating attack. Back he goes, again and again; soon his apprehension and confusion melts away, and Stevens takes advantage of his Groundhog Day scenario to act like a charming Bond-esque secret agent in a seemingly consequence-free universe.

Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley have added a healthy heaping of Alfred Hitchcock and stirred in some Rod Serling to their tale of a fallen soldier with a bizarre case of mistaken identity (North by Northwest meets Johnny Got His Gun, anyone?). The fact that the movie takes place on a train – one of Hitch’s favourite cinematic haunts – and features a cameo from Quantum Leap’s own universe-skipping star Scott Bakula cannot be a coincidence, nor can we discount Chris P. Bacon’s Bernard Herrmann-esque score. Jones is definitely giving a shout-out to his childhood inspirations, which is fine, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of his making a good movie. Too often these cinematic “tributes” end up an ungodly mess (for instance, Faster hilariously thought it was a modern remake of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, much to its own detriment). Source Code, thankfully, is a success.

Most impressive is the way Jones and Ripley trust their audience enough to withhold information during the film’s first half hour, and instead drip out relevant pieces of info only when it is essential for us to know (for an example of how not to relay exposition, please see paragraphs two and three of this review). It rewards the viewer for their attention and patience. Gyllenhaal is perfectly attuned to Jones’ sensibility (much like Sam Rockwell in Jones’ excellent Moon before him); as the confused soldier, he must convey deep regret and mourning as well as mischievous joy throughout this adventure. Also excellent are Michelle Monaghan – who could make you fall in love with her in eight minutes (and still leave time to spare) – and Vera Farmiga – whose entire role has her sitting behind a desk, yet she still manages to hit every heartbreaking emotional beat as the woman tasked with breaking terrible news to Stevens time and time again. Jeffrey Wright fares worst. Here’s a talented character actor who has never overplayed a role in his life, until now. Frankly, he could have repeated his performance as Peoples Hernandez, the villain from 2000’s Shaft, and it would still be a subtler, more nuanced turn than his cartoon creation here.

The ending … won’t be discussed here, mainly because I’ve already revealed enough about the plot. Don’t worry; there are still plenty of surprises to be found in the film that I’ve not yet given away. The climactic twist (if it can be called that) won’t have people debating like Inception’s totem-spinning finale. Jones’ ending is however a cheeky tease just like Nolan’s. The end of Source Code doesn’t try to send us on a soul-searching mission to question identity, reality and the horrifying future of technological advancements (although you are welcome to do so of your own volition). It’s meant to be cool, and fun, and leave us wanting more. But I figure Jones’ will be too busy with even bigger projects in the next few years to offer the fans a second foray into the Source Code.

3.5/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Source Code opens in Australian cinemas May 4, 2011.

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