Years ago, a journalist once said to writer, Joseph Heller, that he never quite managed to better his debut novel, Catch-22. His reply was, simply, “Who could?”
Heading into the screening of Source Code, a similar question was at the front of my mind. How could Duncan Jones, or any new director working in the field of sci-fi, possibly follow up a film debut as stunning as 2009’s Moon?
Following that spectacular first effort (a film I personally ranked as my favourite of 2009), Jones decided to make an apparently straightforward, mainstream sci-fi thriller about a man attempting to prevent a bomb detonating on a train bound for Chicago.
Early trailers all pointed towards a respectable, mid-budget thriller of the Deja Vu variety, a diverting evening’s entertainment, and nothing more. For a director who created an astonishingly personal work like Moon, with its Oscar-worthy performance from Sam Rockwell, its loving references to 60s and 70s sci-fi movies, and emotive story, the decision to take on something as apparently generic as Source Code struck me as somewhat disappointing.
I was wrong. Wrong not only about the film being a forgettable action thriller, but also wrong about it being less personal or steeped in sc-fi lore as Moon.
As indicated in Source Code‘s trailers, Jake Gyllenhaal is, indeed, a man fighting against time, desperate to discover the location of a bomb before it explodes. Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, a former pilot who finds himself involved in a government programme that requires him to travel repeatedly back to the same moment in time, searching for clues among the train’s passengers. Along for the ride are Michelle Monaghan as Gyllenhaal’s love interest, Christina, and Jeffrey Wright as an enigmatic scientist.
This, however, is only a tiny fraction of what the film’s actually about. Despite my moan a few weeks ago about movies being spoiled by their marketing, Source Code is a rare example of a film that wisely underplays the strength of its hand.
What occurs will remind sci-fi geeks of at least half a dozen genre films or television series, and those who’ve already seen the opening five minutes, which appeared on the net two days ago, will know it borrows a premise from one much-loved TV show in particular. But it uses familiar, even generic ideas in a quite brilliant manner.
There are recognisable threads of Moon‘s DNA in Source Code, too. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character and particular situation is entirely different from Sam Rockwell’s in Moon, but they’re both protagonists who battle almost entirely alone against an apparently hopeless situation.
Gyllenhaal is great in the lead role, and like Rockwell in Moon, he’s in almost every single scene. This being a rip-roaring thriller, however, Gyllenhaal’s character isn’t invested with quite as much depth as Rockwell’s, though it’s to both Gyllenhaal and writer Ben Ripley’s credit that a straightforwardly heroic protagonist can provoke so much pathos.
Like the train hurtling towards Chicago, Jones directs Source Code with terrific urgency, delivering a remarkably lean, economical thrill ride. He doesn’t waste a single moment of its 93-minute duration, and there are isolated scenes here that are shot and edited with startling inspiration.
There is, however, a moment in Source Code where I felt the film stumbled a little. I’m not going to say what or even where it was, since I don’t want to spoil anything. It’s a moment that I found a little unsatisfying from a logical standpoint, but certainly didn’t derail what is otherwise a quite brilliant movie.
It’s interesting that George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau arrived in cinemas so close to the release of Source Code, since they’re both, on the surface, sci-fi thrillers with a romantic element to them. Where Nolfi’s movie, a perfectly well made, enjoyable piece of cinema though it was, came across as a little lightweight and inconsequential in the final analysis, Source Code is both gripping and unexpectedly moving.
You could even argue that this is the best Philip K Dick adaptation that Dick himself never had a part in, or a sci-fi movie from an alternate universe in which Dick and Hitchcock collaborated, though that may be drifting perilously close to the murky waters of hyperbole.
Almost by design, Source Code doesn’t quite match the near-perfection of Jones’ debut, Moon, but it comes close. At any rate, I’m struggling to think of another recent genre thriller that has kept me as enthralled or enthused as Jones’ sophomore effort, and that includes, dare I say it, the ambitious yet flawed Inception.
Source Code has flaws of its own, but as a 90-minute express ride of ideas, great acting and superb direction, it’s genuinely unmissable.