Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train, with no idea how he got there. A total stranger (Michelle Monaghan) treats him like an acquaintance. His reflection in the window shows him another person’s face. The train explodes. Colter finds himself strapped upside-down inside a strange machine.
‘Source Code’ is only Duncan Jones‘ second feature and already he has been compared to Christopher Nolan. It’s not hard to see why – Jones seems partial to playing with your mind, and he does it well. Minutes in, viewers are as confused as Colter is and just as desperate to find out what is going on. It’s not long before things are explained, but that just messes with the mind even more.
As it turns out, what Colter experienced was a Source Code, a virtual re-play of a real-life event, where subjects experience the last eight minutes of someone else’s life. He must experience the same event again and again to find out who bombed the train, before the bomber strikes again in real time.
There is a bit of exposition about how Source Code works, but it is pure tech-nonsense, delivered so hurriedly it’s over before you can say “plot device”. Like with the dream machine in ‘Inception’, it is not how the tech works that matters but the kind of story that it allows. ‘Source Code’ is primarily a thriller, mixed with sci-fi, drama and whodunnit mystery in the right proportions. The genres never clash, and it is down to Jones’ talent that it all feels masterfully coordinated.
It’s not very hard to spot the ideas that inspired ‘Source Code’. The film’s influences are so obvious that they might as well be in the credits. Virtual realities – ‘The Matrix’. Time on loop – ‘Groundhog Day’. Time-travel crime-prevention – ’12 Monkeys’, ‘Déjà Vu’ and ‘Minority Report’. Despite including all these elements, ‘Source Code’ doesn’t feel unoriginal.
Tired of stories where time-travellers are not allowed to do anything for fear of changing the future? No problem, it’s only a program, so actions have no consequences. Bored of omnipotent action-men? That’s alright, Colter has no idea what he’s doing. As Jones and writer Ben Ripley break down the barriers of conventional genres, old ideas are recycled in new ways. The result is a story so fresh that you don’t mind if it’s not entirely original. ‘Source Code’ is more clever than cliché, and greater than the sum of its parts.
Gyllenhaal steals the show in his most impressive performance to date. Colter is, at different times, an amnesiac, a frustrated soldier, a helpless civilian, a determined action hero, and an amateur detective. Most importantly, he is a normal man, not above flaws or feelings. Gyllenhaal shows remarkable range, playing all of this with subtlety and making Colter very believable.
However, Jeffrey Wright‘s approach to his role (as the brains behind Source Code) undermines the tone of the film every time he appears. Limping through his scenes and mumbling with a distracting speech affectation, his melodramatic mad doctor schtick would have been more appropriate for a Hammer Horror production. Still, this is a minor flaw and doesn’t come anywhere close to derailing the film.
‘Source Code’ is an engaging and highly enjoyable film, with a great concept and even greater execution. Along with last year’s ‘Inception’, it seems that Hollywood is beginning see the value of intelligent blockbusters. At this point, it is still too early to tell if Duncan Jones is indeed the next Christopher Nolan, but he certainly shows promise. Keep an eye out – he’s going to be big.