Free will, alternate realities, memory, identity, the struggle between the needs of the individual versus the needs of the whole and the implications of trying to change the past are some of the issues explored in this new science-fiction/thriller. It’s the second feature film by director Duncan Jones, who previously directed and wrote the excellent independent science-fiction film Moon. In Source Code Jones is working off somebody else’s script and with a bigger budget. While the end results are not as successful as Moon, it is still a decent mystery with intriguing philosophical implications and a fleshed out human drama.
Source Code opens with a series of crosscutting aerial shots of a speeding commuter train and the city it is travelling towards. There is a terrorist plot theme to the film and involved in this plot is a character played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who sudden wakes up on the train with no idea of who he is or why he is there. Jones’s focus on the small details of passenger interaction happening around Gyllenhaal’s character signposts the importance that repetition and re-enactment will play within the film.
What emerges is a film that mixes elements of old fashioned mystery narratives with the concepts from Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day and Chris Marker’s La jetée, which was more directly the inspiration behind Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. While the blending of these concepts in Source Code is successful, the explanation behind them is less so. It should be enough for the audience to simply accept the principles under which a film like this functions, but the rationalisations offered by the characters within the film are distractingly unconvincing, making the implausibilities and paradoxes a little too blatant. The motivations behind the terrorist plot are also unsatisfying and under developed.
The smaller story within the film, focusing on Gyllenhaal’s character and the woman sitting opposite him on the train (played by Michelle Monaghan), works extremely well to give the film a strong emotional drive. While at times this may come across as overly sentimental it does contain a pleasing living-life-to-the-fullest message. Unfortunately, the bigger story that Source Code tells undermines this message, perhaps even inadvertently. While the film contains an excellent bitter/sweet ‘conclusion’ that would have made a terrific final scene, it continues beyond that scene to deliver what is theoretically a more conclusive finale. However, within this finale the very central premise of who Gyllenhaal’s character actually is seems to have been conveniently forgotten. It is not that the film deliberately ends on a dark and sombre note, it is just glossed over and this leaves behind a slightly bad taste.
Source Code comes close to being a great film but it contains a few too many narrative flaws and slightly questionable issues of representation. While on the one hand it successfully strives to undermine reactionary and bigoted attitudes about terrorism, it also concedes to some very conservative attitudes towards the role of science and the military in society. Despite the life-saving work done by a science organisation within the film, dutiful individualism is celebrated while the collective good of scientific enquiry is somewhat demonised. It certainly doesn’t help that one of the main scientific characters is overacted and overwritten to the point of almost unintentional parody.
Like The Adjustment Bureau, Source Code is more successful as a romance than as a science fiction but it is ultimately frustrating. There are too many disappointing elements that work against what is good about the film for it to be much more than an interesting curiosity by a clearly talented director on the rise.