Film reviews

May 10, 2011

Source Code movie review: frustratingly close to a classic

Luke Buckmaster — Writer, Critic and The Daily Review Journalist

Luke Buckmaster

Writer, Critic and The Daily Review Journalist

If Alfred Hitchcock were alive and directed a cross between The Matrix, Groundhog Day and Murder on the Orient Express it would resemble something along the lines of Source Code, the second feature from filmmaker Duncan Jones, whose 2009 debut Moon became an instant classic in the SCI-FI sub-genre of psychological cabin fever space dramas.

Starring Jake Gyllenhall as a flummoxed memory-zapped military operative who, along with the audience, discovers the purpose of and surreal circumstances surrounding his latest mission, Source Code joins Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu (2006) as a post-9/11 whodunit that presents a Phillip K. Dick-esque premise about how time cheating future technologies could be used to catch terrorists.

Neither are time travel movies but both come close. As the kooky genius professor character in Source Code explains, in an obligatory waffle in which he attempts to articulate the unfathomable (how to send someone back in time and into another person’s skin for precisely eight minutes, using daffy analogies like a light bulb that’s been switched off but still leaves a glow) we’re not talking “time travel” but “time realignment.”

In Déjà Vu Denzil Washington’s character used a technology that displayed a vision of a past alternate reality. He used that vision and jumped inside it to solve a mission in the present. In Source Code Jake Gyllenhaal also lives and interacts inside an alternate past reality but is regularly whisked back to “now”.

Screenwriter Ben Ripley’s kooky non-linear premise kicks off right from the get-go when Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train. He doesn’t know who he is or who the pretty girl he’s travelling with is. When he goes to the loo a different face – one he’s never seen before – looks back.

After a massive bomb blast goes off, turning the train into dust and rubble, Colter wakes up in a futuristic looking pod where a uniformed lady on a small screen (Vera Farmiga) explains that he’s part of a military mission to find a terrorist bomber. Where he was looked like real life, but was actually a complex simulation. Colter gets sent back again and again until he finds the culprit. The technology allows him to spend eight minutes in the skin of another person before they die.

Jones and Ripley would like us to regard the story as an against the clock thriller, but Source Code’s scrambled chronology prevents this from taking full effect; after all, the protagonist relives the same situation ad infinitum, to the point at which he knows the second everything occurs – i.e. “soda can!” “Coffee spill!” “Phone call!” Against the clock thrillers don’t tend to work when the clock is reset again and again.

Déjà Vu and Source Code each showed the potential to become anti-archetype classics but both wimped out in the end, favoring last minute fluff and rosiness. Their endings leave a sour taste of betrayal – a sense that the boldness and sass of the directors’ vision has been short-changed in favour of a making a more smile inducing car ride home from the cinema for Mr and Mrs General Public.

Source Code almost gets away with abruptly changing its tone by framing it in the context of a final-final twist, but not quite. Jones wraps the experience around the wrong way, like a magic routine with the best bits at the start and the shoddiest trick at the end. It’s a shame because the majority of the running time is top shelf stuff: edgy, innovative and exciting, with fabulous Hitchockian use of music and a bunch of entertaining performances.

Source Code’s structure provides a thoroughly original context for a whodunit. The film works well as a counter-argument to the old gripe that Hollywood is depleted of new and good ideas, which, when the ending comes around and the conventions kick back in, makes the salt sting in the wound just that little bit more.

It’s a long shot but we may end up getting a (real life) happy ending if the gods of DVD grant it to us. Source Code is a film that cries out for a Director’s Cut, a bold revision freed from the stranglehold of box office hungry producers. If that opportunity rolls around Duncan Jones will have to chance to reset his own clock, at least in an artistic sense, and unearth the full potential of this frustratingly flawed near classic.

Source Code’s Australian theatrical release date: May 5, 2011.

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5 thoughts on “Source Code movie review: frustratingly close to a classic

  1. McWilliam Ian

    Yes, Source Code was a fresh and an interesting approach to the time travel genre.

    However there were some disappointing moments which affect the full fun value of this film. It seems the writers did not think through each scenario thoroughly. The major bloops in the story line are evidence of this, namely:-

    1. When Goodwin received the email at the end of the film she should have, and in all likelihood would have read it to her superior. Remember the past events between Captain Colter and Goodwin had not happened yet therefore her relationship with Captain Colter did not exist. The emotional bond that would have led to Goodwin making a moral judgement had not yet been formed so therefore Goodwin had no allegiance to the Captain.

    2. What happens when Captain Colter changes the past and remains alive in ‘Seans’ body? What happens to Sean? Surely his life does not cease to exist. We presume he has a mon, dad, etc. Do they stop remembering Sean? Also how does Captain Colter move forward in his life in someone else’s body?

    3. Next, if the time limit for each trip back into the train is limited to 8 minutes (due to the short term memory part of the brain) then how can Captain Colter remember the order of events as he is transported back into the train over and over again? Remember he has no long term memory. Surely his memory has to start at the beginning each time since he goes in. Maybe his memory overwrites itself (like a CCTV with only 8 minutes memory ).

    All in all it was entertaining. For me though I would have like to have seen how Captain Colter convinces his body host ‘Sean’ to visit Goodwin after the train is saved to explain the events to Goodwin and the Doc. Maybe he could have used this time to speak to his dad before saying goodbye. At this point Goodwin disconnects the life support system thereby disconnecting the quantum physics link between Captain Colter and Sean.


  2. danbrader

    Spot on review as always. Just got back from watching the film and the stellar premise is def let down by the ending was a cheesy populist cop-out. That moment when he gives Russell Peters cash to perform stand-up comedy on the train, and h…e manages to KILL IT within seconds is possibly the most laughable thing I’ve seen in a long time considering the mood on public transport is consistently funeral like. But yeah you do wonder if Jones/Ripley had envisioned an ending which felt more in tone with the film as you say a directors cut would be great to see.

  3. Luke Buckmaster

    Shooba: I thoroughly agree that Sunshine was a humdinger SCI-FI with a bogus ending. It rapidly lost all its psychological edge and became a meaningless yeti-running-around-aimlessly stupid-fest.

    Altakoi: (SPOILER ALERT) Your line “some actual poor schmo in a parralell universe has been possessed by an entitled vet from another universe for life, thus presumably being obliterated” is a ripper observation. Nice work. On one hand the film copped out with a happy ending — on the other hand, if you follow its own logic, it wasn’t happy at all….

  4. Altakoi

    You can feel the exact spot the exact moment in this film where they stopped writing and asked the focus group about the ending. I won’t indulge in spoilers, but you will know it when you get there.

    Which is illogical, because the supposed happy ending actually means that some actual poor schmo in a parralell universe has been possessed by an entitled vet from another universe for life, thus presumably being obliterated. That not happy, its creepy and evil. And the creepy ending which audiences are apparantly not adult enough to cope with, is actually a remarkably neat resolution and a neat statement on life generally. For the love of God, what were they thinking.

  5. Shooba

    I never recovered from the ‘should have been a classic’ experience of watching ‘Sunshine.’ It went from being ‘this could be the greatest sci-fi I’ve ever seen and possibly one of my top five movies ever’ to ‘That was crap’ in the space of the final ten minutes.

    Might give Source Code a go, though. Sincere thanks for lowering my expectations so if I find myself thinking ‘this is a classic’ halfway through, I reserve judgement.

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