From the mind of Duncan Jones (son of David Robert Jones AKA Bowie), the director of 2009’s sci-fi gem Moon, comes Source Code, another foray into quantum doublings, though experiments and downright professional storytelling. Whilst Moon played heavily on sci-fi classics to create its moody, isolated atmosphere, Source Code is an original approach to an action thriller, one that pays equal attention to its science-fiction pedigree and the emotional weight of its story. The film also avoids the storytelling pitfalls of its contemporaries (here’s looking at The Adjustment Bureau) to provide a compelling resolution, a rare commodity in films like this.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot stationed in Afghanistan, who finds himself reliving the last eight minutes of another man’s life aboard a train in Chicago. At the end of those eight minutes, a bomb detonates, killing everyone on board. At this abrupt terminus, Colter finds himself (as himself) in a downed chopper capsule, being debriefed by members of a nondescript military organisation. He is part of the ‘Source Code’ project, which, through some understated quantum technobabble, allows him to inhabit the last vestiges of a dead man’s brain – the final moments of a man who has died, as it happens, that morning. His task is to collect information regarding the bombing, in order to prevent an imminent second attack.
This setup, which calls to mind at least two episodes of Fringe, provides a foundation for several narrative twists (which I wouldn’t dream of ruining here), and a sustained, detailed thematic treatment of identity, memory and self-determination. Gyllenhaal inhabits his confused, reactionary character remarkably well, and it’s a pleasure to watch the different tonal shifts each time he enters the source code, armed with new information and attitudes. His actions aboard the train create new chaos-theory-style permutations, a different string of events each time. But this effect is never gimmicky, and it ties into a developing narrative – we actually care about the little changes in these doomed characters’ lives.
The little changes, and the little details that develop around the sci-fi premise, continue to reward and surprise the viewer. Effects, such as minor flickers in the source code or different takes on the same explosion, are tied effectively to emotional beats in the story. Unlike the safe, cyberpunk Matrix, the warping, nebulous source code is a site of uncanny fascination and dread. One particular effect, which relies simply on a jump between voice and text, is so laden with pathos that I found it startling. This is the result of equally strong performances by Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan as an obliviously innocent fellow passenger, Vera Farmiga as a reserved, though invested military liaison, and Jeffrey Wright as the ambitious, sinister programmer of the source code.
As the suspense builds, buoyed by the interaction of sympathetic leads, we get the sense of something crucial to sci-fi – relatable people encountering the unknown. The array of plot twists, none of which feels remotely cheap, keeps the viewer guessing alongside the protagonist. And the conclusion, which ties all of the loose ends whilst inciting the imagination with new possibilities, gives this film the mark of a high-calibre sci-fi.