Two years ago Duncan Jones grabbed many critics’ attention with his independent picture Moon, a meditatively-paced, original contribution to the science-fiction genre steeped in the traditions of the past. While Source Code may be faster paced with a bit more action, it still shows Jones’s respect and admiration for the craft he’s continuing to make significant contributions to.
With sweeping shots of the landscape as we follow a train and a score from composer Chris Bacon that feels like something out of a Hitchcock film, the retro opening credits set the stage for a classic who-done-it story, which is what Source Code starts out as. Airman Captain Colter Stevens has eight minutes to figure out who planted a bomb on the train he’s traveling on. When he fails to figure that out, boom, the train explodes, landing Colter back in a makeshift command pod where he learns the truth about his situation: he is in Source Code, a sort of simulation that sends him into the last eight minutes of a person’s life. In this case, the person is Sean Fentress, a teacher who was aboard a destructive terrorist attack. Through the current operation, Captain Stevens’ superiors are sending him into Fentress’s final eight minutes to discover who planted the bomb in hopes of catching the terrorist before a second attack occurs. But what starts as a simple who-done-it with a sci-fi twist becomes an existential mystery as Stevens starts trying to remember his own past while reliving the same eight minutes in hopes of catching the terrorist threat.
Much like he did with Moon, Jones puts together a story based on some slight of hand: the movie you are going in to watch isn’t necessarily the movie you’re going to wind up seeing. The story takes some nice twists as Stevens exerts free-will the people in charge of Source Code would rather he didn’t. At the same time, Stevens is clearly a patriot, so he refuses to abandon the mission assigned to him, even though he’s desperate for more information surrounding his own situation. Yes, the movie uses some devices from other, similar plots (the story feels so much like Quantum Leap that it’s no surprise to see Scott Bakula putting in a cameo), but Jones combines them in such a way that Source Code feels like it’s paying its respects to the foundations it builds upon.
Jones assembles a fantastic cast to tell his story. Jake Gyllenhaal is in rare form, putting in an intense performance that makes it feel like he’s been sleep-walking through his past few jobs (particularly Prince of Persia and Brothers). Vera Farmiga’s supervisor, Goodwin, manages to build a frustrated, yet sympathetic rapport with Captain Stevens despite only interacting with him through a monitor, while Jeffrey Wright plays the modern day Frankenstein as Dr. Rutledge, the inventor of Source Code: a scientist so obsessed with his product that he loses all compassion and care for any actual human condition. While Michelle Monaghan earns second billing as the female lead, she doesn’t get a ton of time to do much as she only exists in the doomed eight minutes on the train. Still, you get the sense from all of these characters, both through the performances and Ben Ripley’s script, that there is so much more to their stories. They feel like living, breathing people who have an existence beyond the confines of the story we’re watching. As the movie progressed, I wished for more time with any of them: to see what was the driving motivation behind Rutledge’s focus or to learn more about Goodwin as a person.
More than the characters or story, I just love how Duncan Jones directs this story, frequently lining up characters so single camera shots can capture more of the story without relying heavily on editing. It gives a lot of Source Code that old-school feeling the opening credits establishes. There’s a particular scene with Gyllenhaal’s Stevens inside his pod conversing with Farmiga’s Goodwin who is displayed on a monitor behind the Captain. The positioning of the camera and the actors perfectly displays Colter’s frustration, Goodwin’s compassion, and the urgency of both of their situations perfectly.
Jones is now 2-0 on my score sheet, and I look forward to seeing where his passions lead him in the future. Not every sci-fi movie has to rely on big-budget special effects to tell an enjoyable story, and I take great comfort in the fact that he’s making movies like 2009’s Moon and this year’s Source Code: intelligent, compelling movies that draw viewers in with simple direction and solid performances and build on the foundation of stories that came before.