We’ve been here before. Source Code’s star Jake Gyllenhaal, emerged 10 years ago as rabbit botherer Donnie Darko, tangled up in time.
Back then, he saw the future. Here, he’s a slave to the past as Captain Colter Stevens – killed in action in Kandahar and, powered by his final eight minutes of brain-life, reassigned to inhabit the body of a doomed train commuter.
“It isn’t time travel,” claims Jeffrey Wright’s sciencespook. “It’s time reassignment...” As the (literally) embedded military agent, Stevens must gather intel on a terrorist attack that will destroy the train and kill everyone on-board.
Crucially, he’s told that he can’t stop the explosion. Instead, his mission – and he has no choice but to accept it – is to sniff out the bomb, trace it back to the bomber and disrupt an ongoing campaign.
So, every eight minutes, his consciousness is zapped into the brain of working stiff Sean Fentress – who, happily for fellow traveller Christina (Michelle Monaghan), looks like Jake Gyllenhaal.
Each trip quickly escalates into a paranoid panic (bag rummaging, racial profiling, toilet barging, passenger punching)...
It’s 24 meets Timecop as Fentress/Stevens does whatever it takes to track down the bad guy before he’s jettisoned back to limbo, reborn in a steel womb for a debrief, then sent in for another go.
Appliance of science
We’ve been here before. The idea of a respooling strand of time was patented by Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. But while Murray played the ‘different shit, same day’ schtick for laughs, director Duncan Jones takes pleasure in sifting science from fiction.
As an upstart Brit trusted with an American A-lister, packing a theatrical trailer ablaze with explosions, Jones risked the ire of audiences expecting a retread of Under Siege or Unstoppable, who found themselves learning stuff about quantum physics, string theory, multiverses...
Perhaps as atonement, the DVD/Blu-ray is loaded with extras to dumb things down. There’s a delightful series of shorts reworking physics principles as Sesame Street-like animated skits. But in case some viewers find those patronising, there’s also a real professor to guide us through the quasi-philosophical labyrinth of unitary physics.
Could we really extract the electromagnetic field from one person’s brain and allow them to assume the role of another? Well, no.
But only real physics professors (and some internet dwellers) are going to get upset about the integrity. Jones and writer Ben Ripley have taken a more accessible route over, say, the hellish trigonometry of time travel indie Primer.
We’ve been here before. On the perky commentary (with Jones and Gyllenhaal) Ripley reveals how it all began, as a single-location thriller with the time-travel aspect re-replayed from multiple perspectives, Rashômon-style.
Ripley and Jones strip everything back, presenting Stevens’ mission as an infinite loop of alternate paths branching from a single perspective. Less confusing, more connected to reality and with a protagonist who’s easier to identify with and root for.
This is the Source Code fantasy. That call you didn’t make, the retort you couldn’t conjure, the lover you lost... What if – to quote Donnie Darko, you could go back in time and take all those hours of pain and darkness and replace them with something better?
Behind the movie physics and slow-motion explosions, Source Code soars because, like the ’60s and ’70s sci-fi it’s inspired by, there’s a soft centre of soul nourishing the far-out premise.
As with Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, the sterile science (administered by flawed or callous lab-goons) is subverted by the unquantifiable mysteries of the human condition.
As his handler Colleen (Vera Farmiga) struggles to contain Colter as a tool of the mission, he becomes self-aware – alert and alive to the inevitability of death.
His plight is a concentrated version of every human journey – he must live a ‘full’ life in an closing window of time. But, whether it’s eight minutes or 80 years, the living isn’t easy.
Tired of rolling his rock up hill, he grasps for meaning, wincing through memories and pangs of regret. The mission recedes. Stuck in present-tense purgatory, he craves a future with Christina (Monaghan, holding the emotional centre as Gyllenhaal falls apart around her).
Moon was an audacious debut and Jones has shrugged off the sophomore slump with a follow-up that’s high concept but not lowbrow.
After all that nuanced claustrophobia, Jones lets his influences show: cues from Kubrick (low-level heli-cam swoops); nods to Nolan (wide-open pans across glinting skylines)... There’s even a hat-tip to Hitchcock, in the retro music and clammy paranoia.
Jones also bares his star-management skills, transforming Gyllenhaal into a likeable action man and focusing on Farmiga’s enigma as she slides from chilly to maternal. Caveats? The overcooked ending calls for schmaltz that betrays worry-wobbles over intellectualism, while Jones’ inexperience is exposed in Wright’s cartoonish, officious G-Man.
But Source Code marks Jones out as a rare breed – a British director with European style and Hollywood sensibility. Edgar Wright has applied his Spaced/Shaun template to American indie (Scott Pilgrim), but Jones has more range and ambition. He’s aspiring to be James Cameron, not Kevin Smith.
Most remarkably, for a movie so alive with ideas it never feels bloated. At 93 minutes, Source Code is lean, keen and, ironically, bears repeated viewing.
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