Source Code

Duncan Jones’s latest film, Source Code, is an interesting film that avoids any major sophomore slump, and demonstrates that Jones is a competent, story-driven director. His first major film, Moon, won me over with its story and characters, and while this latest foray has its flaws, they are merely superficial.

Source Code opens with a train, where a man, Captain Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), abruptly awakens and is faced with unfamiliar surroundings as a woman (he only learns later that her name is Christina Warren, played by Michelle Monaghan) says that she took his advice. His confusion mounts as he realizes that he’s in a different body altogether, before being blown apart by a bomb planted on the train. He abruptly wakes up again, this time in a small capsule, with a video of an Air Force captain, Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who tells him that he’s on a mission to find out where the bomber is, and to stop another bombing in Chicago. So begins a Groundhog’s Day-esque series of events where Stevens enters another man’s last 8 minutes (Sean Fentress, who died in the bombing earlier that day) and works to find the bomber and the bomb.

The science fiction element here comes with the Source Code, which uses quantum entanglement to access the last eight minutes of a person’s life (described as an afterglow, akin to a light bulb), and essentially places the subject into a parallel version sidestep of the world, where he’s able to uncover information about the world around him as he seeks out the bomber. The story, much like the idea of separate worlds and time-paths, splits off in its focus, and to Jones’ credit, he juggles the themes (I’d hesitate to say stories, because they’re all part of the story) fairly well together.

The execution isn’t perfect – there’s points where the film feels a little forced, such as when we’re shown Stevens coming and going from the worlds multiple times, but the overall effect works – there’s plenty of tension, and several twists as the story changes in the last act. Looking back, the story isn’t so much a terrorist hunt as it is a man struggling for his mission when all of the choices available to him have been limited. Stevens finds himself in an impossible situation, one where he has to struggle for context when he has none. As science fiction author William Gibson noted: “The people who complain about Source Code not getting quantum whatsit right probably thought Moon was about cloning”. The same thing holds true for the counterterrorism element to the story here: this isn’t a film about an action hero tracking down the back guy: it’s the story of how someone accomplishes his mission, and the stakes that that mission might hold. Execution issues aside, this is a film that is really as thoughtful as Moon was.

In a lot of ways, this film is one of the best examples of real world events seeping into the public consciousness and expression: 9-11 and subsequent war on terror has undoubtedly had an impact on popular culture, but this is the one of the few examples of where a subtle theme of retrocontinuity has come into play: what if we could go back and do things over again? Given that between the political scene and a general yearning for the rosy pastures of the past, this film feels like it works on just about every level.

Doubly so, there’s some excellent points to be made about the lengths to which people will go in the event of a crisis: here, Stevens uncovers some rather nasty surprises about his existence in the Source Code, and there are some fairly unpleasant consequences and moral quandaries for all involved: the life of one man or the lives of millions? This is a oft-tread story in the genre, and Jones handles it incredibly well.

At the end of the day, the Source Code reminded me the most of a 2005 movie, The Jacket, which features some similar concepts: working to change the past by righting a couple of wrongs, and it joins a growing roster of films, such as last year’s Inception, or Jones’ prior film, Moon, that focus on characters and story, rather than spectacle and action, as the genre is wont to do. It’s smart, and thought provoking, and I’m happy to see that with the number of science fiction films coming out this year (while I’ve liked some of them, like Battle: Los Angeles), there’s some genuine effort for something that’s not just for visual appreciation. The marketing for Source Code had me worried that I wouldn’t enjoy this film as much as I did, and I’m happy to report that it well exceeded my expectations. I’m not sure that it’s as good as Moon is, but it’s certainly better than a lot of what hits theaters.

There’s a closing moment towards the end when Stevens gets everything right, and I hoped that the film would end right then, as time stops and the camera pans across a still image, where the film is genuinely beautiful; sublime. It’s a powerful moment, one that shows all the stakes, and what we really take for granted. It’s the almost perfect end to the film (before a short coda), and an excellent addition to Moon for what Jones has created. I’m very pleased with what we’ve seen from him, and I already can’t wait to see what he’s got up his sleeve next.


11 thoughts on “Source Code

  1. I totally agree with you that the just perfect ending scene of the movie would have been the “frozen” one. I disagree a bit about Jones: the premise of Moon is so weak (regardless of Gibson’s comment, if you cannot suspend disbelief over badly handled science, it’s not good sf) that I have no intention of watching it (the premise was barely good enough for an average romantic comedy). Similarly, the science in this movie didn’t NEED quantum mechanical b.s., as it’s just a pretty straightforward extrapolation of current neuroscience and advanced computer science. As much as I liked this movie, Jones inability to see and fix this obvious failing, makes me believe that he doesn’t quite GET or has even read much SF. It’s essentially what Pohl did decades ago in the Gateway trilogy and very similar to what was done in the best episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation, those with the created, sentient AI Prof. Moriarty.
    You didn’t mention the superb “cameo” of Scott Bakula. This brought to my mind the sheer HORROR that his character Sam Beckett faced, unendingly, in Quantum Leap, essentially the same horror that Colter Stevens faces here (and quite similar to that of the protagonist in Orson Scott Card’s terrifying short story: A Thousand Deaths (written before OSC became obviously bat-shit crazy)).

    • I disagree with the science elements, because this is film we’re talking about. The entire point is to tell a story, with elements that support it. Moon works well for what it is (the only issue that I had was the gravity, and that really didn’t matter all that much in the whole context of the story). Source Code felt like it was very much in the same boat, and it’s not something that I’m particularly caught up over. It worked well for the story, and it’s not something worth thinking a whole lot about.

      Jones not getting scifi is a good laugh right there – he’s David Bowie’s son – I suspect that he had quite a bit of it when he was growing up.

      As far as not mentioning every little element of the film, I apologize. I’ll take notes and mention everything next film I review. That’s a promise.

    • No need to get snarky; I’m well aware of whom Jones’ dad is, but do you think knowledge of sf is genetically inherited? Or even “culturally” inherited (do you know if Bowie actually had anything to do with Jones’ parenting, as I don’t?). For that matter, I also have no knowledge that Bowie GETS hard sf, as there seems to be little or no evidence that he does, one way or another.
      Same thing about the Bakula cameo. It was something that was done well, and given the plot similarities between Quantum Leap and Source Code, deserved mentioning.
      My just mentioning the cameo apparently annoyed you but it was simply intended to add value and wasn’t meant as a criticism.
      As for the science in sf, if you screw up the science we know NOW, then that is, obviously, not exactly a selling point, regardless of medium. If that drops a viewer out of disbelief, this it qualifies as a fail. That didn’t happen to me with Source Code, but would have with Moon, which is why I passed on it. The cloning idea, without which Moon couldn’t exist, could barely carry a moderately successful romantic comedy. The idea CAN be used well, as was shown in Imposter. My prediction (about the future even), Jones’ movies will continue to show the kinds of hard sf “errors” he’s demonstrated so far. Which doesn’t mean he won’t be commercially successful, of course.

      • Some people hadn’t known about that – reading interviews from him, it seems like he’s well invested in the genre – Moon was his ‘homage’ to Silent Running and those styles of films, and a film that he’s been writing, Mute, is his version of Blade Runner (if it ever gets made).

        Not necessarily annoyed at the mention, just when comments come off as such – it’s difficult sometimes on the internet, to gauge one’s tone, so forgive my tone there.

        I’ve seen the cloning argument from a couple of scifi authors – they cited that it seemed like an unrealistic practice for a business. My counter to that is that we’re seeing only a small part of that world – for all that I know, it’s the most cost effective way to mine the far side of the Moon, or there’s other factors at play. Regardless, I thought that while it wasn’t unexpected, it was an interesting take on the story.

        Source Code, I’m not sure what to make of the science stuff here – my feeling is that it’s plausible enough for me, but even then, it wasn’t the science that I went to see the film for.

  2. My issue with Source Code was that, at it’s heart, it’s an internal psychological story that, like Moon, raises questions about what personal identity even means. And where Source Code focuses on that central theme, it soars. Unfortunately, it spends much of its time trying to also be a taut thriller about a bomb on a train. Good story, interesting concepts, but Jones got the tone all wrong, IMO. The multiple universe thing was fairly well handled and is way a way more interesting sci-fi conceit than random references to “quantum entanglement” or whatever — and shouldn’t we have known sci/tech terms would be abused in a film called “Souce Code” that has nothing to do with, you know, source code?

    • I think the internal stuff is where Jones excels the most – Moon won me over completely for that reason.

      When it comes to Source Code, I think there’s a bit more of a split there, because it came with a much larger budget and bigger stars than Moon did, and I suspect that when it starts getting into the thriller / action territory, it did so in an effort to sell tickets. Without it, I doubt that there would be the same audience.

      In this instance, I think the film’s strengths overwhelmed the weaker points, which left me pleasantly surprised, and hopeful about his next film. Hopefully, that one will be Mute, and not Wolverine.

      • I totally agree about the *reason* the tone tends toward action thriller rather than an existential tone poem like Moon (that reason being the need to reach a wider audience/sell more tickets), but I still think it was an artistic mistake. As it is, the film is trying to have it’s cake and eat it too, tone-wise, and it’s a bit messy is all I’m saying. Definitely looking forward to the next Duncan Jones effort.

      • Indeed – and no science fiction film will ever be perfect in the balance there, and that balance will vary widely from person to person. As pure art, I agree. As a theatrical film? Decent balance to it. Moon is probably one of the only films (Along with The Fountain and Pan’s Labyrinth for me) that really stand out as pure artistic endeavours. Lots of other films don’t hit that, and I’m okay with that.

    • Actually, I thought “source code” was pretty pertinent to the story: integrating the captured memories, with an artificial reality, and Colter’s consciousness would keep a lot of coders busy for a very long time…..

  3. Interesting. Not to belabor this point, but just to clarify: I don’t think all SF films necessarily have to be beautiful tone-poems to be artistically pure. I think certain material lends itself toward that sort of treatment (like Moon, last year’s excellent Monsters, Solaris, Blade Runner, etc.). I also think some SF material lends itself more toward an action/thriller aesthetic and that done right, these films are just as artistically successful (e.g., Aliens, Star Trek reboot, Firefly). Other material needs a colder, hard SF take (e.g., Primer, parts of 2001). You get the idea — certain scripts will succeed better when a particular aesthetic is applied. Aliens would have sucked if they’d focused on a Ripley/Hicks romance, for example (thank the Gods they didn’t).

    So Jones had a few options with the Source Code material. I think he did the film a disservice by trying to be all things to all people. But yeah, there are worse Hollywood SF films out there and given the balance (which could have been very heavily studio-imposed for all we know), I think Jones pulled it off pretty well.

    • Indeed. I think he’s one of the more promising up-and-coming filmmakers, along with Neill Blomkamp and Gareth Edwards (District 9 and Monsters), because he does really get the characters / story. I’m a little concerned that he’s been asked to do the next Wolverine film, and while I think he’d do a decent job, I think his ‘original films’ would be more interesting than a franchise film, as pretentious as that sounds.

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