Source Code

Source Code

****1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

On a passenger train speeding towards Chicago, a man is woken from his slumber. The woman sitting opposite thanks him for the good advice he gave her and reveals that she has handed in her notice. Yet while Christine (Michelle Monaghan) may think she has just taken a major step in changing the course of her life, in fact, in fewer than eight minutes, it will come to an end when the train is destroyed by a terrorist bomb.

Not that anything is quite so simple. In fact the train blew up several hours earlier that morning, and Christine and her traveling companion Sean Fentress were both killed along with many other passengers. This entire scenario is playing (and endlessly replaying, with significant variations) in the 'source code' of Fentress' last eight minutes of memory, preserved in the viable remnants of his brain – and military helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stephens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself wired up to this code on the ride of his life, forced repeatedly to act out the last moments of the train's doomed journey.

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Stephens' mission, as is explained via a computer monitor by his controller Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) - and occasionally by her superior Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) - in the brief, disorienting breaks between each re-enactment, is to identify the bomber before he or she can carry out another, more devastating terrorist act in Chicago's metropolitan area later that day. Stephens, however, will also pursue his own agenda: to find out how he came to be part of this experimental programme; to contact the father from whom he had departed on bad terms for a tour of duty in Afghanistan; and to save Christine, the other passengers, and the world. And as he keeps reliving – and re-dying – Fentress' (and possibly his own) final journey, Stephens must also grapple with the question of whether it is possible to divert your life from the terminus towards which it seems – inevitably and uncontrollably - to be hurtling.

Duncan Jones' 2009 feature debut Moon showed the director's way with replicating narratives, while actor Jake Gyllenhaal's breakout role in Donnie Darko let him stare through a glass darkly at an alternative universe – so they are both well placed to be attached to a film whose repeat-play action takes on parallel-track multiverses.

Yet much as Captain Stephens must conduct his time-looping investigation under the cover of history teacher Sean Frentess (note those initials), Source Code, too, is merely dressed up in its own SF guise. For while there may be computers, high-tech gizmos and a military laboratory visible on the other side of Stephens' screen, Ben Ripley's script is far less interested in the technical aspects of its own apparatus than in the human condition itself – our desperate search for big answers and satisfying closure, and the mortality that both delimits and perhaps ennobles this very search.

With its plot pitched somewhere between the driving high-concept thrills of Tony Scott's Deja Vu and the poignant humanism of Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day, Source Code is only the latest in a run of recent films (Inception, The Adjustment Bureau) that use familiar genre frames (SF, thriller, action, romance) to dramatise more universal philosophical and theological questions. For as the disembodied Stephens races to change the trajectory of not just the future, but also the past, he is sent on a collision course with the dualisms of free will and determinism, mind and body, chance and causality, heaven and hell. All these weighty issues are anchored by the several carriages' worth of characters that Ripley sketches with both plausibility and considerable humour. The evolving warmth between Gyllenhaal and Monaghan also helps bring the loftiest of ideas down to earth.

"Everything's going to be ok." This deliriously optimistic line recurs several times in Source Code, typically an instant before its speaker, and everyone else in the vicinity, is blown to smithereens. Such a highly combustible collision of idealism and realism is what propels the film's narrative forward far more than the undeniably cracking pace and deftly handled genre elements, as Stephens, and we along with him, are made to wonder whether the best of all possible worlds is merely a fantasy of the imagination, or a reality that can be actually achieved – if only momentarily, and only in a universe next door.

It is a question that Source Code will only appear to answer, as it rattles through numerous permutations of the same event, offering a series of different endings, any and/or all of which might equally be unfolding in the real world(s) or just in someone's head. For like Moon, Source Code seemingly delivers us the happy ending that we want, but not necessarily one that we can – or should - believe. Indeed it remains tantalisingly beyond the viewer's grasp whether the paradoxical point at which Source Code happens to finish represents a genuine solution to a particularly thorny problem, or else just pure wish fulfilment, or even something approximating the theological concept of heaven (with all that this would imply).

Is everything ok? Only if you can take a leap of faith and share Stephens' and Christine's optimism - and even then, maybe not, given that their optimism is repeatedly seen to explode in their face. It is, however, precisely this ambiguity, this 'maybe', that will have you revisiting the different parameters of Stephens' multiple journeys long after he has completed them himself. For if Source Code begins as a rather particularised high-stakes puzzle (allowing for several guesses at its solution), it ends up being a far broader quest for the possibility and nature of human happiness in a world where ultimately - unavoidably - everybody dies. And having invited us aboard and taken us on an enthralling journey, Jones is generous enough to let us decide for ourselves where we want to get off.

Watch the first five minutes of the film, below:

Reviewed on: 21 Mar 2011
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Source Code packshot
A man discovers he's part of an experiment that lets him inhabit another man's body for the last eight minutes of the man's life - his task is to stop a terror attack.
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