Do you remember that one episode of The Outer Limits that Alfred Hitchcock directed? Of course you don’t. It doesn’t exist. That’s why Duncan Jones had to make Source Code, a smart and thrilling sci-fi caper about a man who doesn’t know why he’s on a train, and who appears to be in the wrong body. His name is Colter Stevens, and he’s got eight minutes before a bomb kills everyone on board. If it blows up before he finds the bomber, he has to relive it again. The conceit of Source Code is a bit like a videogame: Colter has a specific goal, but if he dies or fails to accomplish it within a punishing 8 minute time limit he gets sent back to the last checkpoint. Except all of the non-playable characters on the train are real, and he’s genuinely falling for one of them.
The nature of the ‘source code’ in which Colter Stevens is stuck is established as a mystery and gradually unveiled over the course of the film. Naturally, the marketing department is working overtime to ruin the surprise. I’m not that much of a bastard so I’ll leave it unexamined. Suffice it to say it involves time travel and/or alternate realities, and with such sci-fi nonsense comes plot holes, head scratchers or at least unanswered questions. Duncan Jones, who kept his first sci-fi feature Moon grounded despite similar high-concept trappings, does an excellent job of saving these kinds of issues for your trip to the refrigerator back home.
Source Code’s strength is its immediacy: a perpetually ticking clock that prevents in-depth analysis while the train is in motion. Colter is trapped in a pod, repeatedly going back to the same tragic 1/7.5th of an hour to discover the nature of the explosion that kills everyone on board, because the bomber will strike again soon. He gets to know the passengers better and associates with them as human beings. His handlers, played by Up in the Air’s Vera Farmiga and Angels in America’s Jeffrey Wright, are distanced from his disaster. To them it is an inevitability, its victims already dead. Only the future matters, but to Colter the past is his present.
Jake Gyllenhaal is superb as Colter Stevens. His wide-eyes convey empathy and invoke sympathy for a plight that could have been reduced to objectivity through the nature of the plot. If audiences didn’t see the events of Source Code through the eyes of a compassionate individual they would probably find themselves siding with the scientists running the experiment, reducing the consequences from the horrifying deaths of dozens to a meaningless deletion of ones and zeroes. Gyllenhaal’s innocent gaze made light of his previous action outing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, but the more serious tone of Source Code places his persona in fitting contrast to the solemn machinations of the plot. Although Colter is told repeatedly that he cannot change the fate of his fellow passengers, he refuses to accept this as fact. As he strives to change the past he flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which states that hope is futile.
Source Code is an impressive campaign against audience cynicism: the events may be recorded but they exist perpetually in the present. Farmiga and Wright embody the case for detachment, Gyllenhaal the case for emotional involvement. If you can’t accept the validity of the protagonist’s philosophy, Source Code may strike you as a cold affair… an amusing conceit perhaps, but lacking in greater significance. And you will have missed the point, or at least the valuable lesson of the film regardless of the filmmaker’s intentions: that life matters, even if it’s fictional. What a great film.
Crave Online Rating: 9 out of 10