SXSW ’11: Source Code – Review


Robocop for the digital age

Source Code is, in many ways, this generation’s Robocop. That is not to say that the sophomore film from director Duncan Jones is in any way tonally similar to Paul Verhoeven’s satire-heavy ‘80s action staple Robocop. The films couldn’t be more dissimilar in the way they explore violence. What bridges the two films, though, is their fluid ponderings on the consequences of action and the levels of trauma that a soldier is asked to go through in their duty to their country.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Colter Stevens, an Air Force helicopter pilot who finds himself in the epicenter of a new government initiative that melds quantum physics with anti-terrorism efforts. Hooked up to a mysterious computer program named the Source Code, Coulter’s brainwaves are merged with those of a recently deceased victim of a train bombing in Chicago. Coulter’s mission is to relive the last seven minutes of the man’s life and attempt to figure out who is responsible for the bombing so the government can stop a planned second bombing before it wipes out half of Chicago.

Writer Ben Ripley’s script cleverly combines a classic “whodunit” mystery with high-stakes action, technobabble intrigue and rousing romantic drama between Stevens and Christina, a fellow commuter played by Michelle Monaghan. As Stevens attempts to discover the truth behind the technology that is forcing him to repeatedly die for his country, he makes it his personal mission to save Christina’s life. While the initial romantic catalyst seems a bit rushed at times, the resulting bond between Stevens and Christina is more than believable and gives the film a great deal of emotional resonance.

With Source Code, Jones is able to take the basic structure of a thinking man’s science fiction film — with all its related philosophical quandaries and forward-looking technological leaps — and merge it with the sprit and fire of a summer blockbuster action film. The film pulses with an energy — thanks in large part to Gyllenhaal’s performance. After a series of failed attempts to break into mainstream Hollywood popcorn cinema, Gyllenhaal has finally found a project that allows him to play to his strengths. As an emotionally wrecked, fiery tempered soldier just looking to get out of his new assignment and go home to his father, Gyllenhaal recaptures a lot of the initial spark he showed in films such as Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain.

As Carol Goodwin, the Air Force officer helping to administer the Source Code project and acting as Stevens’ liaison into the real world, Vera Farmiga does a great job acting as the emotional center to the film’s action scenes — her growing reluctance to keep sending Stevens back into the minutes before the train bombing hammering in just how scarring an experience it must be to repeatedly be at the epicenter of a terrorist attack.

Source Code is not a time travel movie. Instead, the film cleverly utilizes a lot of the pop-science research into quantum physics and parallel realities that have been getting a lot of mainstream attention — as best summarized in last decade’s documentary What the Bleep Do We Know?

The film’s exploration into the consequences of every action and the ability or inability to change destiny helps flesh out the movie — keeping it from being your average episode of 24 stuck in a loop.

Unfortunately, it’s this same science that keeps Source Code a bit unbalanced. Not quite sure if it wants to be a hard-edged science fiction film or a fluffy “love conquers all” emotional drama, the film wobbles a bit in its third act.

Duncan Jones may not have created a home-run winner like his initial offering Moon but Source Code is definitely proof that Duncan Jones isn’t a one-trick pony. The director has a lot of imagination and a great eye for the cinematic — something that was perhaps not as evident in his relatively quiet first movie.

Director: Duncan Jones
Notable Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright and Russell Peters
Writer(s): Ben Ripley

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