Following his extremely intelligent debut film, “Moon,” fans of Duncan Jones eagerly awaited his sophomore effort, hoping the young director would not hit the sophomore slump. Luckily for his fans, the son of David Bowie avoided the slump that trips up many filmmakers with his second film, “Source Code.”
The style of science fiction filmmaking that made “Moon” successful is what works so well in “Source Code.” Jones takes a scientific theory, in this case time travel, and treats it seriously while questioning the ethics and consequences behind the science. “Moon,” in much the same manner as classical science fiction films like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Blade Runner,” takes complex science fiction ideas and fleshes them out into a wonderful piece of storytelling. With “Source Code,” Jones repeats the impressive feat while adding in action, adventure and a crackling love story, to boot.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Colter Stevens, a soldier who wakes up in an unknown location and learns the military chose him for a new mission. A military scientist, Colleen (Vera Farmiga), informs him that his task is to travel back in time, into another man’s body, to find out how and why a terrorist blew up the train the man was riding before his death.
The science fiction of the movie supposes that Colter can travel into someone else’s body and live through the final eight minutes of that person’s life. Colter is capable of maintaining free will and holds the ability to make changes to the man’s actions during this time in order to investigate the train. Once the explosion kills the man, Colter returns to his own body to check in with details of his investigation before being sent back to relive it again until he uncovers who and what caused the explosion.
What makes the movie work so well and resonate so strongly is the relationship Colter develops with a woman on the train named Christina (Michelle Monaghan). After a few repeated missions, Colter wants to save everyone on the train, especially this woman he develops feelings for, instead of just stopping the terrorist from committing future attacks. This opens a new can of worms because, as anyone who follows science fiction knows, you are not supposed to change the past. It is the film’s ethical conundrum.
“Source Code” pays homage of a number of different productions, mixing the ethical questions raised by Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” the time altering aspects of “Groundhog Day” and the interesting theories of time travel used in the classic television series “Quantum Leap.” The movie never reaches the brilliance of “12 Monkeys” but remains a solid addition to the science fiction genre thanks to both the filmmaking talents of Duncan Jones as well as the acting of Jake Gyllenhaal.
Jones uses a ticking clock in the movie, as Colter must find the terrorist before his threats of dropping a dirty bomb on Chicago becomes a reality. However, as with the best Alfred Hitchcock films, the terrorist is a MacGuffin moving the script forward. This MacGuffin exists to allow Colter to question the mission and decide what is more important for him to accomplish, simply following orders or trying to be more than just a hero. Never mind the fact Colter is living on borrowed time in another man’s body. The fact is, he wants to do something special and important, logical or not.
One area the movie stumbles in is creating villains when none are necessarily needed. Jeffrey Wright plays a scientist, the man who created the Source Code, and plays out as a manipulative corporate type. It is similar to the Paul Reiser role from “Aliens” but, while he comes across at times as a mustache twirling villain, he is simply a man who works towards the greater good. By the end, he is a weak character, a scientist who refuses to look any further than the science he created. The character weakens the plot to provide an antagonist to Colter’s character.
It could hurt a lesser movie but Jake Gyllenhaal carries his role as hero in a manner which makes you want him to succeed, even if it makes no sense at the end. Gyllenhaal is the everyman this movie needs to help it rise above a typical disaster movie. He and Michelle Monaghan share a comfortable chemistry, making you hope they somehow make it out in one piece, despite the odds. Vera Farmiga, who recently earned an Academy Award nomination for her work in “Up in the Air,” also shines in the movie with much less screen time.
By the end of the movie, the science fiction goes completely off the rails and little of it makes sense. People may leave the theater with their heads spinning and wondering what happened, but they will leave with a smile on their face. Duncan Jones takes an interesting sci-fi idea and adds plenty of action and adventure to lure in more mainstream fans than his previous effort. If “Source Code” makes anyone go back and discover “Moon,” it is a huge success. On its own, it stands as one of the smartest science fiction movies in recent memory.