Source Code (Film Review)

3 & 1/2 out of 4 stars

Less than a year after ‘Inception’, yet another sci-fi classic of a distinctly different kind is making its mark in theatres.  Part introspective character drama and part suspense thriller, director Duncan Jones’ ‘Source Code’ easily impresses with its emotional performances, gripping suspense, engaging storyline, and thought-provoking moral and ethical themes such as freedom of speech and the existence of an afterlife. At this early stage of 2011, ‘Source Code is easily the most thought-provoking and well-made film of the year.

The film’s protagonist is Captain Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a U.S. army pilot serving a stint in Afghanistan.  However, when Stevens wakes up from a coma after being shot down in flight, he finds himself suddenly miles away onboard a New Jersey train, sitting opposite to a girl called Christina (Michelle Monaghan) who he has never met. Even more startlingly, the girl believes undoubtedly that he his husband Mike, despite all of Stevens’ pleas to the contrary.  Struggling to grasp his surroundings, Steven’s pleas are abruptly cut short by a minor accident: a bomb explodes on the train, instantly killing both him and every other passenger.

Amazingly, Steven wakes up from his apparent death again, this time in an underground military bunker. Here, he is briefed by Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and her enigmatic superior Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) to the stunning truth of his situation: he is a test subject in the army’s brand new virtual reality program ‘Source Code’.  Using advanced quantum physics, Source Code enables subjects to relive the final eight minutes in a recently deceased person’s life, with the image created from the residual memories left in the body’s brain cells after death.

Using this technology, the U.S. military is now capable of analysing terrorist threats as they occur in the hope of preventing future incidents.  In Stevens’ case, the explosion on the train was actually the work of a terrorist bomber who has recently threatened to destroy another train in the city by noon the next day.  Under the direction of Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge, Stevens must repeatedly re-experience the eight minutes on the train in the hope of identifying the bomber, allowing him to be caught before the next attack. Simultaneously, Stevens also attempts to save his fellow passengers on the train as well as to learn more about the mysterious and potentially dangerous nature of the program.

Despite its dark and complex plot, ‘Source Code’ is surprisingly emotional and moving for a sci-fi film. In fact, the film is arguably more of a romantic character drama than a typical genre thriller. While there are definitely moments of visceral suspense in Stevens’ time travelling journey, the primary focus is his emotional growth and development as he gradually begins to discover painful truths about himself and his companion Christina through the program’s workings.   In this respect, ‘Source Code’ owes just as much to ‘Groundhog Day’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ as it does to ‘The Matrix’.

As a result, this also places increased importance of the performances of the actors. Fortunately, the entire cast turns in some of their most accomplished work to date, with Jake Gyllenhaal impressing particularly in the lead.  As Coulter Stevens, Gyllenhaal is always three-dimensional and human, perfectly capturing each aspect of the character as he swings from panic, determination, and finally acceptance by the end of the story. In the fact, the role just might be the most emotionally complex of Gyllenhaal’s entire career. In smaller supporting roles, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga also bring charm and depth to the film, with the former especially sharing genuine chemistry with Gyllenhaal that adds a touch of sadness to all their scenes together.  Finally, Jeffrey Wright is suitably menacing as the amoral Dr. Rutledge, the enigmatic creator of Source Code.

Of course, typical sci-fi and action fans will hardly be alienated by the film. Despite taking place almost entirely in a train cabin and featuring very few elaborate set pieces, ‘Source Code’ remarkably manages to achieve an incredibly high level of tension throughout its runtime. This is in large part to the directorial skill of Jones and the intelligence of the script: right from the beginning, the audience is thrust into his perspective and is forced to decipher the truth of their surroundings alongside him.  Other factors aiding the film’s suspense are the steady camerawork, brooding, evocative score, and the aforementioned emotional bond that the audience develops with its lead character. Much like this year’s earlier hit ‘Limitless’,  ‘Source Code’ truly embraces Hitchcock’s less is more approach to great effect.

Finally, ‘Source Code’ is a rare cinematic exercise in philosophy that should easily spark heated debate among its viewers. Some of the moral and ethical questions raised by the film include how far governments should invade personal privacy in order to stop terrorism, how the afterlife would look like if it existed, and whether events are the result of human decision or are pre-ordained by fate.  Like the best films, ‘Source Code’ declines to preach black and white answers to these questions, but does provide enough provocative twists in its story to cause viewers to stop and question their existing beliefs.

Even if the mechanics of its plot don’t always add up after viewing, ‘Source Code’ is nevertheless the best film of 2011 to date.  A triumph on an emotional, intellectual, visceral, and spiritual level, the film perfectly encapsulates not just the best that the sci-fi genre has to offer, but cinema as a whole.  Hopefully, director Duncan Jones will be able to follow in the footsteps of James Cameron and Christopher Nolan and reach even greater heights with the increased budget and scope of his next project.  Without a doubt, ‘Source Code’ is a genuinely original classic of its genre.




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Jake Gyllenhaal as Colter Stevens and Michelle Monaghan as Christina Larren in 'Source Code'

‘Source Code’ is currently available on DVD in Shenzhen.

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The Contributor

Damien is a talented, up-and-coming writer building his career in the media industry. His hobbies include playing guitar, listening to music, and watching films!

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