When Duncan Jones‘ mysterious debut feature “Moon” was released back in 2009, the Internet collectively collapsed under the weight of its own enthusiasm. Jones was heralded as a bold new visionary, someone to rescue the tired sci-fi genre from the Hollywood trappings of big-budget spectacle. And while the heaps of praise lavished on the young filmmaker and his debut film were somewhat hyperbolic, it was still clear that the dude was a fresh voice in the field and one unafraid to focus on the human elements of science fiction and genre. Of course, the question was — what would he do next?
Well, it turns out that his follow-up would be Ben Ripley‘s buzzed-about 2007 Black List script, “Source Code,” a sort-of sci-fi, sort-of alternate reality tale about a young soldier (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who is unwittingly recruited to take part in an experimental program which lets him relive the last eight minutes of a man’s life; in this case a man who was killed when a mad bomber detonates a commuter train outside of Chicago. An intriguing concept for sure, and one in which Jones’ cred as a sci-fi savior is fundamentally established, even if he strays more towards more traditional, and therefore somewhat more familiar, Hollywood filmmaking.
Within the film’s nifty conceit (by the aforementioned Ripley, who up until now has been responsible for a pair of direct-to-video “Species” sequels), Jones is able to build a convincing world out of the most ridiculous reality challenging scenarios. Part of the way he establishes (and grounds) the world is by populating it by fairly realistic characters, notably Vera Farmiga as a conflicted project supervisor, Jeffrey Wright as the mad scientist-like mind behind the project (with his jagged cadence and shock of hair he’s like the fascist version of Doc Brown) and Michelle Monaghan as a fellow train passenger who Gyllenhaal eventually feels is worth bending the time-space continuum to try and save (so yes, there’s also a romance angle to all of this).
For the most part, problems aside, “Source Code” is entertaining (though it doesn’t give you much to particularly chew on). The “last eight minutes” structure means that Gyllenhaal can be loose and effervescent. Yes, the story has some real gravity, as well as an ingenious ticking clock (he’s got to figure out who triggered the train attack because there’s another bomb planted somewhere in the city), and every time Gyllenhaal gets sent back to the train you get a queasy sensation knowing that it will end, once again, in a very big bang. But there’s still fun to be had, with Jones maximizing the absurdity inherent in the material, like a gonzo, sci-fi take on “Groundhog Day.”
In a particularly entertaining sequence we see Gyllenhaal bungle his investigation, getting quickly eliminated in various ways. One of the revelations of the movie is Gyllenhaal as an affable, everyday action hero, one that’s not even particularly skilled (Jason Bourne he’s not), but whose heart is in the right place and who attempts his assignment with great gusto — he is a soldier serving his country after all. It’s particularly shocking considering it comes right after his “Prince of Persia” performance, which was all Hollywood action star posturing with very little to actually go on.
And while the movie is very much a suspense piece, with prolonged sequences of edge-of-your-seat tension that bring to mind what would have happened if Brian De Palma had directed a script by Richard Kelly, it has an incredibly romantic heart — one that is perhaps a little hokey at times, but a heart nonetheless. Time travel has always been a good match for romance, from “Back to the Future” to the cruelly overlooked “Somewhere in Time,” even elements of the original “Terminator” film, and “Source Code” fits proudly into that tradition. Scenes towards the end of the movie, when you realize that time is running out not only for our beleaguered hero but also for his burgeoning romance, have an unexpected amount of emotional resonance, again, especially since everything else is so outlandish. But Gyllenhaal and Monaghan sparkle together, and you believe that he would risk everything, even the delicate fabric of the universe, to stay with her. Though OK, yes, it comes off slightly cornball-ish at times, the climactic emotional scene works and that’s all that really matters.
These tonal planes are tough to juggle but Jones handles himself admirably. This is a much larger movie than “Moon” in every respect, and considerably more complicated from both a technical and narrative standpoint. And for all its puzzle box construction, you can barely see the seams; “Moon” had a smaller scale and more easily manageable atmosphere while “Source Code” has a thousand moving parts. Another interesting element of “Source Code” — which perhaps is more effective on the page then the screen — is that it’s two tiered. Gyllenhaal’s solider character is not only trying to figure out who planted the bomb, but he is also trying to find out the mystery of his life: how did he get here? Why is he all of a sudden in this source code terrorist assignment? And why is it the last thing he remembers is flying a chopper over Afghanistan?
However, what lessens the entertainment factor of “Source Code” are a few stumbles that are hard to look past and greatly diminish the overall impact of the story. Firstly, the villain is weaker than afternoon tea. You can’t really discuss this aspect of the story too much without ruining something for those who haven’t seen it yet, but we can’t believe how bland and milquetoast the baddie is (and you sort of clue in to who this suspect probably is early on) not to mention how poorly written his motivation is. You’re going to create a world in which Jeffrey Wright’s stuttering Dr. Frankenstein is somewhat believable and let the villain be this dull?
Another big minus is that the film has a real problem sticking the landing. “Source Code” is miraculous in that as the movie progresses, both the science fiction-y mumbo jumbo intensifies, and yet so does the emotional heft. The two seem to balance each other out, ying-ing and yang-ing for a good portion of the movie. And then, after an emotionally satisfying climax, things settle into a pure gobbledygook denouement which we wish would have been axed, as it lessened the overall emotional impact of the film. And that’s a real shame. And perhaps one overall botheration, while Ripley’s screenplay is taut and inventive on the page, “Source Code” just feels overly familiar, as we said, “Groundhog Day” with a sci-fi conceit that gets less and less interesting as the picture progresses and all the threads become revealed (admittedly, the concept is excellent).
Moreover, and perhaps the largest issue, is the film’s lack of personality and authorship. “Moon” was beloved because it had a voice, it had mood, atmosphere, texture and contours the world over. “Source Code” doesn’t evince the auteur stamp of Jones or his voice and frankly, could have been made by any of the take-your-pick, mid-budget sized directors on the rise (folks like Neil Burger and David Slade come to mind). It’s as if Jones willingly buries his unique aesthetics in favor of a tone that’s more fitting to a mainstream piece of filmmaking and while that’s mature and wise — you can’t just piss on the fence to mark your territory on everything — it nonetheless diminishes and makes for a less layered and surprising experience. (Also, it’s worth noting that Clint Mansell, who created a phenomenal mood-altering score for “Moon,” was originally pegged to make the music only to be replaced on this project at the eleventh hour by “Gnomeo & Juliet” co-composer Chris Bacon, which begets Hitchcock/Bernard Herrmann-lite)
Ultimately, “Source Code” is slightly frustrating. It’s an entertaining, over-the-top science fiction trifle that will likely keep you dangling on the edge of your seat, and yet it’s a forgettable work that will not burrow into the recesses of your mind like you’ve been incepted (yes, we realize, that’s a hard act to follow and they are different-sized mindbenders). It’s a worthwhile effort, and yet it’s not an on-par follow-up to Jones’ “Moon.” For all of its mainstream trappings and dulling down of rough, interesting edges, Jones remains a strong and original voice in a genre badly needing of both. Unfortunately “Source Code” doesn’t really demonstrate that voice either. Worth your looped eight minutes and more? Sure. One for the ages? Not really. Are we expecting too much? That’s for you to decide. [B-]