Duncan Jones’ sophomore feature is a fast-paced, well-acted, and all around excellent look at multiple realities. Just don’t call it a time travel movie. I had high expectations, and Source Code met them all: it’s one of my favorite films of 2011 so far.
Jones stepped out of his father’s shadow with his feature debut back in 2009, the excellent Sam Rockwell science fiction film Moon. (Jones’ father is rock legend David Bowie, who has dabbled in film with performances in Labyrinth and The Prestige, among many others.) Here, he improves on Moon‘s budget by almost 30 million dollars, and puts every bit of that money on screen for us to see. The opening shots – beautiful aerial photography of Chicago – recall Chris Nolan’s breathtaking introduction to The Dark Knight. Jones is an artist on the rise, and definitely someone to keep an eye out for in regards to upcoming projects. He was up for the directing job on the new Superman film (a gig that eventually went to Zack Snyder), and has at least one other science fiction project lined up before he wants to move on to other genres.
Source Code is essentially Groundhog Day meets Deja Vu, an action thriller that utilizes time and repetition to great effect. The film follows Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he enters the Source Code, a new technology that allows him to take over the consciousness of the last eight minutes of another man’s life. This man is Sean Fentress, a teacher on a train that exploded outside of Chicago, killing everyone on board. Stevens’ mission is to relive these last eight minutes over and over again, learning more each time, until he can find the bomber and prevent a later attack that is scheduled to arrive back later in the day back in real time. That’s where Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) are peering into cameras and speaking remotely to Stevens, giving him just enough information before whisking him back onto the train again, where he sits across from the beautiful Christina (Michelle Monaghan), Fentress’ potential love interest. It’s all a bit complicated, but that’s why I love this movie – it forces you to pay attention and actually makes you think a little bit.
It takes a special kind of director to make the same eight minutes interesting and avoid annoyance with the gimmick, but Jones pulls it off without a hitch and actually makes it look easy in the process. Movies like this also beg to be done properly, with all realities and storylines nicely wrapped up by the end; Jones doesn’t disappoint on this front, either. His effectiveness specifically reminds me of a few other movies I’ve seen: the Spanish thriller Timecrimes and Christopher Smith’s criminally underseen – and kind of brilliant – movie called Triangle, both of which I’d highly recommend if you’re into time travel movies, theoretical physics, or philosophy.
Every great movie begins with a great script, and this one is a coming out party for writer Ben Ripley. You may not expect the writer of Species III to be able to put together a coherent, kinetic, and fleshed out story, but previous credits can sometimes be deceiving. Remember, James Cameron’s first film was Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. Ripley manages to create an engaging story that keeps the audience guessing throughout the film; all of the pieces fall into place eventually, but I relished the slow reveal. Too often these days, films will put all their cards on the table too early, leaving the savvy audience member bored out of his or her mind for the remainder of the movie while the story sputters to the finish line. Here, Ripley does a great job of keeping us interested and slowly presenting us with more information about Stevens’ conditions and situation. Even during the parts of the movie NOT in the Source Code – the sections which allow the audience to catch our collective breath – we’re not entirely sure where (or when) Captain Stevens is until the climax of the film.
Gyllenhaal, an actor who has been pretty hit-or-miss in my opinion, does some excellent work in this movie. I’m sure this was a difficult project to work on as an actor, with most films (and I’m assuming this one) being shot out of sequence, so I’m sure there was an added layer of confusion as to how confused Stevens should be in any given shot. Apparently he was the one who championed Jones to direct this project, and the two worked well together. I wouldn’t be surprised if the two collaborated on many more things in the future. Michelle Monaghan, gorgeous and talented as always, turned on the charm in a role that unfortunately didn’t require much. She has such a great screen presence; she was one of my favorite actresses back in 2009 and that hasn’t changed in the years since. Vera Farmiga was quietly effective as Goodwin, a role unlike anything she’s ever done. But the glaring standout (in a HORRIBLE way) was Jeffrey Wright, who inexplicably affected his speech with the most ridiculous delivery he could fathom. How Duncan Jones could make such an otherwise spectacular film and yet allow this egregious distraction to persist is this movie’s greatest mystery.
I generally only mention a film’s score if it is particularly memorable or outstanding, and this one is both. The initial plan was for longtime Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell to compose Source Code‘s score, but he had to drop out due to a schedule conflict. Enter Chris P. Bacon, a man I’ve never heard of before, but a composer for which I will assuredly be keeping an ear open in the future. His blasts of triumphant spirit mixed with Zimmer-esque strings made for a winning combination, and I’m interested to listen to this score separate from the film and see if it is imminently listenable as some of the more popular scores of 2010. If I compile a list of my favorite scores of 2011, expect this to be on it.
If I could somehow pinpoint a formula for a movie I know I’d enjoy, Source Code would be it. It’s exactly what I want: a visually compelling, well-edited film with plenty of action, solid acting, a bit of romance, and a story that leaves you with something to think about as you walk out of the theater. Hey 2011 – more like this, please. Until next time…