Source Code

Year: 2011
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Duncan Jones
Producer: Mark Gordon
Writer: Ben Ripley
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright

I was very worried about this movie. Duncan Jones did such an amazing job with Moon, and very often that's where great new filmmakers shine. When they're starting out they often have little money but a hunger and passion for the idea that's visible in every frame. Many an exciting first time auteur has enjoyed a generous Hollywood budget second time out, settled comfortably back into a big fat director's chair and turned in something without half the vibrant energy of their debut effort.

The trailer looked pretty good, if a little like The Bourne Identity meets Groundhog Day, but I really wanted the scientific premise to be strong in service of the story where so many other movies have let down my inner physicist, anthropologist or conceptual engineer. So many movies have failed to offer a credible basis for artificial intelligence for example (Eagle Eye), I hardly dare hope any more.

But it was indeed a good idea and despite one clunky scene of a character (a horribly overacting Geoffrey Wright as Dr Rutledge) spouting the expositional science (Professor Exposition, with thanks to Jeff Goldsmith), the science kind of sort of worked and on the surface it was an effective thriller.

A man (Gyllenhaal) wakes up aboard a commuter train with a beautiful woman opposite (Monaghan) talking to him. He has no idea who she is, why she's calling him Sean or what he's doing there. As far as he knows he's Afghan combat grunt Colter, and partway through trying to figure out what's going on the train explodes and he finds himself in a strange pod talking to a superior officer (Farmiga) via a video screen.

Not allowed to give too much away – a good device to keep us in the dark too – Goodwin explains that Colter's in the source code, a black ops program where his consciousness is sent back to the same eight-minute period that was experienced by someone else to solve the problem facing her unit. The train has been bombed and the perpetrators are threatening a much bigger terrorist strike in Chicago. From his capsule full of strange equipment, Colter's consciousness is sent back over and over again like a military Phil Conners to find out who bombed the train so the good guys can stop him in the real world.

He gets closer to the truth each time and in the process he becomes convinced he can stop the first bomb and save everyone on board, particularly the beguiling woman he seems to already be friends with. It's a small story with big ramifications and stuff to say about the mind, parallel universes and the links between them. At one quietly thrilling stage Colter sends Goodwin a text message from what essentially amounts to his imagination, but the movie doesn't explore the full weight of the technology as much as the thrills and drama.

Despite the upsides there were three things I didn't like about it. The first was something that left a bad taste in my mouth when I first heard about it – the name. Hollywood has a long history of leaping on memes from the zeitgeist, and even though the term 'source code' refers to the HTML that displays web pages I imagine the writer and studio knew how few people would know that – it just sounded cool and computer-y.

I also found the humour displaced. I thought it should have been more serious (or at least more tense than it was), and the at-times jokesy script bled a lot of the urgency away. That was partly due to Gyllenhaal's performance, which was the third thing I didn't like.

Where he was kind of a bumbling everyman ready to crack a joke or flash his killer smile, I would have preferred a stone-jawed military man who didn't flouder so much and took his job seriously. I know we're supposed to believe Colter knows nothing about the program and didn't ask for any part of it (his condition in the real world – revealed at the end – is a huge shock), but it felt a little like Laurel and Hardy trying to foil September 11 at times.

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