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SXSW 2011: ‘Source Code’ is if anything, a damn fine action movie

SXSW 2011: ‘Source Code’ is if anything, a damn fine action movie
Source Code
Directed by Duncan Jones
Written by Ben Ripley
2011, USA
Director Duncan Jones first made waves back in 1971 when he was fathered by glam god and the man who fell to earth, David Bowie. His next big move, the 2009 film Moon, established Jones as an artist in his own right and as a folk hero to sci-fi nerds. Moon was a small film exploring one man’s relationship with technology and himself, and it was thrillingly fresh and offbeat. But now, given a far more actiony screenplay by Ben Ripley, an even higher concept premise, and a lead performance by apparent action hero and time traveling wizard Jake Gyllenhaal, he is set to prove whose side he’s really on: nerds or suits.

Turns out he’s mostly just on his own side–with mixed results. Source Code is a uniquely constructed, capable action film that goes big but never fully grasps what it wants to be or say. Let’s call it Speed playing Inception dressup. The main idea at play is that “Source Code” is a new technology that allows a participant to enter the mind of another person for the last 8 minutes of their life. But be assured, you incorrigible little Gyllenhaal, that it is not time traveling, but rather existing in a completed, irreversible time loop! What practical purpose could this serve? Imagine for a second that a terrorist has bombed a train and you have every reason to believe that the same terrorist has a bigger, badder, bombing planned later that day, but you have no idea who this mystery man is. Continue to imagine that you could, ad nauseum, return and explore the last 8 minutes of a train passenger’s world until you can finger the culprit. What you have just imagined is the movie Source Code.

It’s an odd idea for a film, and the fact that a story constructed around an 8-minute time loop is propulsive and thrilling for most of its run-time is impressive enough. Jones parcels out the exposition patiently and intelligently, wisely avoiding any concrete explanation of the film’s central conceit, and he even pulls off some truly surprising and compelling twists. The script is also littered with a self-conscious humor that keeps it from becoming cold and insufferable. It helps, too, that Gyllenhaal, if you can stomach him, is as committed and on task as ever playing Captain Colter Stevens. Now, his beautiful companion in the source code, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), is more carrot on string than person, but that’s OK, because there is a bond between Gyllenhaal and his main contact in the real world, Carol Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), that is unique and strong. There’s is the most complex and, ultimately, heart wrenching relationship here, and the two spend most of the movie in completely different worlds.

The main problem with Source Code is that it assumes a clever foundation is equivalent to high philosophy and deep

emotion. Questions of morality and personal philosophy do color the characters, but, more often than not, Jones opts out of exploring them in favor of rote character drama. There are enough existential ideas at work here, and enough Gyllenhaal screen-time, that Source Code could have been just as intimate and passionate a character drama as Moon, but it never comes close. It doesn’t help that (VAGUE SPOILER) the film barrels right past an obvious, strong, and character-based ending to undermine and muddle everything it has carefully built. To summon an unflattering comparison, Christopher Nolan’s Inception is framed in a novel and elaborate way, but Nolan understood that the film’s construction was a story means to a character end, and wisely closed the film at the end of Leo’s character arc. Source Code wrongly assumes the audience gives any kind of shit about Source Code operations or foiled terrorist plots.

Ultimately, the film is a damn fine action movie. Everything else aside, it’s a thrill.
-Emmet Duff