‘Source Code’ – seen it all done before

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Source Code

Directed by Duncan Jones

Written by Ben Ripley

2011, United States

Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhall, Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain) wakes up strapped to a chair. He has no memory of who he is, where he is or who the uniformed woman on the nearby screen is. As his memory comes into focus so does the story. Stevens is in the “source code.” He is operating in two separate realities. In one, he is Colter Stevens, communicating with Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) about his mission, his whereabouts and his identity. In the other he is Sean Fentress, passenger aboard a Chicago train who has 8 minutes to find and disarm a bomb to prevent catastrophe. When Fentress fails he painfully wakes up as Stevens in an unknown location. Then he goes back in and tries it all again.

The looping time travel film has been done. Source Code goes far enough out of its way to declare, via Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Rutledge, that this is not actually time travel. It’s “mind travel.” Same thing. Quantum Leap, Groundhog Day, Timecrimes – they’ve all been here before. The problem with a science-fiction film where the loop is the focus is that the events within the loop have to be interesting and varied enough to keep our attention. It’s not the case here. In fact, Source Code‘s loop is so shallowly conceived that it makes the entire film immensely predictable, down to the tacked-on ending.

Director Duncan Jones found success in the independent film world with 2009’s Moon. That film succeeds because of its reliance on what Jones is best at: low-tech sci-fi and a homemade aesthetic. The Chicago train sequences of Source Code feel under-designed and visually flat. It’s a glossiness that is worlds away from Moon. The design, however, of Colter Steven’s mysterious capsule, is right up Jones’ alley and these sequences benefit greatly from that advantage, becoming the lone interesting spot of the film.

The two concurrent mysteries in Source Code – how will Fentress stop the bomber and will Stevens discover why he is in the source code – are enough to keep the film plowing along, but it’s really the latter that Jones seems more comfortable with. He manipulates the smaller space of Stevens’ capsule much more freely than he does the train, and the drama is more dependent upon actual human emotion than on simple repeat actions.

Source Code treads no new ground. The few reveals that should be shattering, or at least dramatic, for the audience are telegraphed long before they come to light on-screen. The love story that evolves aboard the train with Fentress and Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan, Gone Baby Gone, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) is enjoyable in the stuttering, awkwardness as Stevens adapts to “life as Fentress,” but fails to dig more deeply than these moments.

Source Code tries to be broad in its scope and it touches on racial profiling, young male violence (see Columbine and Virginia Tech), and military responsibility, among others things. In Jones’ and screenwriter Ben Ripley’s defense these are very relevant topics, and refreshing to see amidst a Hollywood action production. However, no is solution is offered and these issues are ultimately sidestepped for standard big-budget sentimentality.

There’s a final irony at the end of Source Code and it’s an unfortunate one that drags the film beyond a reasonable conclusion and into an unnecessarily long and complex ending, seemingly calculated only for audience catharsis and not with regard for structure or logic. Is it also ironic then that I feel like I’ve seen Source Code before?

Neal Dhand

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