If the noughties were a new golden age for drama on TV, let us hope that the twenty-teens are an age of intelligent, thrilling science fiction movies that favour plot, wit and character over gloss, dross and explosions. Certainly, it would seem we live in a post-Inception age, and if we are to take Duncan Jones’s Source Code as a further indication, we are well on our way to having one hell of a decade.
Source Code, like Inception before it, is a story of imagined realities with very real consequences. Army helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train inbound to Chicago, confused and disoriented — his last memories are of a mission in Afghanistan — and not only does his traveling companion Christina (Michelle Monaghan) keep referring to him as ‘Sean’, he soon discovers that the man in the mirror looks nothing like him. There’s very little time for him to panic, however, as the train soon explodes, killing him and everyone in it.
And then he wakes up.
To give away more would spoil an excellent science fiction plot, but I will say that Stevens is in a very unique position to unravel how and why the fateful explosion happened — and to stop an even bigger tragedy from occurring. While any trailer will give you the highlights, going in with no foreknowledge will not leave you confused, as the movie lays itself out clearly and simply.
This clarity of plot & action is one of the highlights of Source Code — it’s stripped of all gimmickry and artifice, with production design and cinematography that sets it very much in an ordinary, real world. Often, it feels like a classic Hitchcock thriller, or a 1970s science fiction film, and is stronger for it.
Source Code has little in the way of flashy set-pieces, and doesn’t really need them (though there are a couple of excellently done bits where CGI is employed to visceral effect). While there are always things that can be nitpicked about if you look hard enough, the crisp direction and the tautness of the script (by Ben Ripley) propel your interest. This is a film that never tries to clutter its world with backstory and ever-more-convoluted excuses for peril or danger. It knows that a MacGuffin explained is a MacGuffin of no use, and drops just enough clues to keep you engaged and invested in the fate of its characters.
And it’s the characters that are the central drive of Source Code, even though like its plot they are sketched quickly and with minimal strokes. Don Burgess’s bright cinematography fixes mainly on people’s faces — Stevens, the various people on the train, and especially his mission ‘handler’ Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), and allows their acting to shine.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is strong — no mean feat — as a protagonist who has to solve several mysteries simultaneously as a clock ticks down to doom. In lesser hands he could have been your average action movie grunt, but the actor infuses Stevens with everything from charm and grace to manic irritability and even whimsy, sometimes within the same scene.
It is Farmiga, though, who grabs your attention the rest of the time, turning what is literally a talking head role into the anchor of the piece. The rest of the cast is solid, with Monaghan not having much to do but doing it well, and Jeffrey Wright deftly walking the line between ambitious government scientist and nerdy, socially inept boss. If there’s anyone that really sticks out as a sore thumb, it’s probably comedian Russell Peters, who on the one hand is (thankfully) not playing himself, but is playing a famous comedian (how’s that for metafiction!?). It’s not a negative in a film filled with so many positives — and Peters’s role is small — but it does jar a little.
If Source Code‘s central science fiction idea had played out exactly as I’d expected — or less elegantly — I may be less pleased with it, and remember it only as solid and entertaining. However, once the plot is done and dusted as the gods of movie endings would usually have deemed (I will try my best to avoid spoilers here), it goes further, exploring that central idea, and resolving itself in a way that is both satisfying to the story nerd and the science fiction nerd in me.
All through it I kept expecting (with a little dread) that it would chicken out and go for the ‘Twilight Zone’ ending or the gimmick ending — it even did, for a moment — but that Jones & co. chose to forge ahead with the braver, more, shall we say ethically dubious ending (one, that I hasten to add, can be interpreted as entirely positive, as I did)? That makes Source Code a great piece of science fiction.
It’s a hell of a film, too.