The Chicago skyline accosts you in the opening credits of the Source Code, as we follow the progress of an innocuous looking train chugging along to the heart of the city. As the train crosses a lake, you notice a couple of stray geese skimming the surface of the water.
This isn’t the last you’ve seen of them. Not by a long shot.
The Source Code can easily be written off as a one-gimmick movie by someone who’s just heard the plot. So you have a man who finds himself on a train, no idea how he got there, no idea why the face in the mirror doesn’t actually belong to him – at first. Complicating matters is the fact that the train explodes in 8 minutes. And a fragment of him survives the explosion to then be given vague mission details by a no-nonsense general. The outlines soon emerge – however, I’m going to resist spoiling any of it for you because this is a movie that needs to be discovered. All I’ll spill is that our man is to revisit these 8 minutes many, many times over the course of the movie, Groundhog Day style, to figure out the identity of the bomber.
Of course, the science of the thing is preposterous, of course it requires you to make a fair few leaps of faith, and of course some of this plot seems derivative. But never you mind – the Source Code is one hell of a thrill ride, and by the surprisingly emotional closing moments, all crises of faith for this reviewer at least lay quelled.
For one, this is a satisfyingly smart movie, that isn’t in love with its own cleverness, doesn’t go out of its way to be oblique, and actually allows discerning viewers to put together the pieces of the puzzle for themselves. Remember watching The Prestige? Remember enjoying the thrilling play-off between Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as things escalated to a thundering climax that …… made you want to slap Christopher Nolan. The twist in the tale was cheap and tacked on. It may have been foreshadowed, yes, but it was basically fantasy constructing a completely new rule of fantasy to deal with the vagaries of a convoluted plot. Now, the Source Code has the chance to teeter into that territory – so its wonderful how it gracefully sidesteps it. While it does feature the obligatory final act twist, it’s one of the more rewarding ones I’ve seen in a while particularly in a science fiction movie. I actually remembering hoping the movie would go there, and what a thrill when it actually managed to have the guts to take the idea to its logical conclusion.
Right, I know this all sounds horrendously vague, but you will thank me once you’ve seen the movie. What I can talk about more forthrightly is the great trio of performances that holds the movie together. When we’re dealing with so called “hard” sci-fi, its easy to step into ponderous territory, so losing the fun of the whole thing. This is yet another peril of the genre that the Source Code manages to side step, starting with Jake Gyllenhaal’s great self-aware portrayal of the protagonist. Leads in these movies are often thankless roles, with the director or the script usually labelled the star performer, but its easy to see this movie failing miserably with the overdone gruff-tortured portrayal that someone like Leonardo Di Caprio would’ve inflicted on it. There’s a great cheekiness that Gyllenhaal exhibits which significantly elevates the proceedings. Crackling chemistry with Michelle Monaghan, his co-passenger for the course of the movie helps too, particularly in grounding the stakes for the denouement. Vera Farmiga manages to bring her brand of empathy to another thankless character stereotype – tough outside, soft inside military commander.
But okay, back to the star performer. This is Duncan Jones’ sophomore effort, his first being the excellent (also sci-fi)Moon. In both his features, Jones exhibits a remarkable take on the contemporary science fiction genre: they are movies of ideas just as much as they set out to thrill. Both, too, let slip a fear of where technology might take us in less obvious ways than “Computers are evil! HAL FOR THE WIN!”.
Most importantly though, both confirm that Jones is definitely a filmmaker to watch out for.