Directed by: Duncan Jones
Written by: Ben Ripley (screenplay)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, Michelle Monaghan, and Jeffrey Wright
Duncan Jones made noticeable ripples in the independent film landscape back in 2009 with Moon. The main source of its appeal was that it was a low budget sci-fi film with idealism burning at its core instead of special effects and an actor (Sam Rockwell) that brought enough gravity to make you care.
When a filmmaker makes a splash on the indie scene they are sometimes rewarded with a mainstream money-maker. Take a look at Marc Webb, the director of another 2009 indie film, (500) Days of Summer, who is now at the helm of the Spiderman reboot. Jones landed a less lucrative big budget enterprise, but one with a unique vision that is suited to his taste.
Source Code is about a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is tasked by the military to find out who is behind a terrorist attack in Chicago to try and prevent another, bigger one. The sci-fi twist is that he is placed on the train with the bomb in the 8-minute window before it goes off. Each time he relives that window, he learns new clues about who did it.
There’s no denying it’s an intriguing premise, one that, as many other critics have pointed out, was utilized to comedic ends in the 90s Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day. Source Code is more like another movie about racing against the clock and redos, Run Lola Run. It plays more like a single level of a video game because the window of time is so small.
Unfortunately, Source Code ends up working as a premise more than a movie. Because there is a budget behind it, there were obviously studio eyes, eyes that needed Gyllenhaal’s Colter Stevens to fall in love with someone on the train (Michelle Monaghan) for it to have mainstream appeal. It would’ve been more believable in a longer time window, but he mostly just sees her die.
Outside that fault, Jones occasionally gives the movie a jolt. The screenplay by Ben Ripley tends to overindulge in its creative premise, but Gyllenhaal and a terrific Vera Farmiga give good enough performances to keep it grounded.
Keeping a story like this grounded in emotion has kind of an ironic twist. It hints at Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus in that its protagonist is forced to keep repeating a seemingly meaningless action. Movies like Groundhog Day and Source Code attempt to define the meaning Camus added to that story in different ways.
In Source Code, Stevens ultimately fills his heart with the repetitive struggle before him, even becomes obsessed with the people on board’s safety even though he is told he is reliving a shadow of the events instead of actually time-traveling. He has been placed inside the experience of a victim on that train (there is a long-winded explanation). It is another nod to French Existentialism and its authors like Camus, and it’s disappointing that a movie that aims so high disappoints on execution.
There are thrills to be had, though, whether it’s the jolt the narrative gives when it occasionally delivers on its promise or if it’s in digging up the idealism at the core of the story. Thinking about it as an action thriller version of a better Bill Murray comedy doesn’t quite do the premise justice, but it suits the mediocre movie just fine.