Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan
Runtime: 94 mins
It’s been 10 years since Donnie Darko made a star out of Jake Gyllenhaal, so it seems quite appropriate that his new film is also one where a realistic character type is put into a scenario that’s straight from the world of science fiction. Source Code sees Gyllenhaal at the height of his leading-man-powers, and like Darko it uses a plot device that means the film ends where it began.
It starts as Gyllenhaal wakes up, sitting opposite from Michelle Monaghan’s smiling face on a train as she says the words “I took your advice,” talking as if they’ve been in conversation for a while. He has no idea who she is or why she thinks that he’s a teacher on his way to work in Chicago. Before he has a chance to work out why the reflection he sees in a mirror isn’t his own, the train explodes.
He wakes up again, now enclosed in a strange sort of pod. A screen in front of him reveals an army official (Vera Farmiga) who knows that he is in fact a fellow captain named Colter Stevens. She won’t tell him why he isn’t still in Afghanistan and instead he goes back into Source Code – like The Matrix, except the only world it emulates is that of a teacher who has died onboard an exploding train. The soldier’s mission is to keep re-living the 8 minutes in the train until he can find the bomb and the person who put it there.
The film’s premise, written by relative unknown Ben Ripley, is brilliantly executed by Duncan Jones, the director of Moon, which also used sci-fi to provide claustrophobic thrills and emotional engagement, anchored around a sole character who’s being manipulated more than he realises. But where Moon saw Sam Rockwell waiting around, Source Code’s hero is given barely any time to compose his thoughts.
Jones and Star Wars editor Paul Hirsch combine this urgency with a fairly clear sense of how to steadily reveal just what it is that’s going on. The film’s biggest twist isn’t too surprising but no one’s pretending that it is, as Stevens works it out before we do. More important is what becomes of him afterwards: at times, a little bit cheesy, but, open to enough interpretations that it’s more ambiguous than it seems.
Source Code is made for bigger audiences than Moon, sometimes to its detriment. Luckily the romantic element it requires isn’t too serious, but when choosing how to characterise its villains, the film opts for a cartoonish approach that’s aware of the film as a thriller, rather than finding a way to incorporate its bomber and Machiavellian army figure into the intellectual questions the story asks.
The casting choice of Gyllenhaal, however, perfectly carries the film. Stevens has to convey naivety, charm and the ability to think ridiculously quickly at the same time, and Gyllenhaal’s personality manages this. It’s amazing to think that he’s played a military figure before, in Jarhead, and yet a blockbuster like this more convincingly analyses a soldier’s mentality. Summer seems to have come early, and Source Code is yet another action film that seems to have more intelligence than the boring dramas its cast are normally found in.