Dir:- Duncan Jones
Starr:- Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
Before I start the review proper I must confess that I cannot bring myself to dislike a single film that features Jeffrey Wright in a significant role. That said, Source Code pushes my Jeffrey Wright-blindness to breaking point.
In 2009 Duncan Jones released one of the year’s best films with barely any publicity. That film, Moon, was in effect a one-hander in which Sam Rockwell made boredom, loneliness and routine fascinating. It also showed cinema audiences, used to SFX saturated sci-fi blockbusters, that all you really needed to bring to the big screen is a compelling, and compellingly told, story and it doesn’t matter that the moon looks like a postcard, or the space station resembles a broom cupboard with disco lights. Jones’s debut made its cheapness, its lack of budget, its slender cast, all work to inventively service the narrative, in a way that reminded me of John Carpenter’s debut Dark Star, minus the absurd satirical flourishes. In short Jones scored an unexpected success with Moon, and in the process built up massive expectations for his second feature – and first studio effort – Source Code, which has come along on a storm of Matrix-esque publicity.
Much like Richard Kelly and Michael Cimino before him, Duncan Jones has fallen into that routine sophomore trap of biting off a little bit more than you can adequately chew. Thankfully, unlike both of those other directors, he doesn’t appear to have fallen foul of the overbearing hubris that tends to accompany such film follies, instead he has just let things all get a little silly, in a classy Cary Grant kinda way. Source Code is no Southland Tales, and Heaven’s Gate was Cimino’s third feature and a far better film than he is given credit for, however in it’s gimmicky plotting and all-too-clever (but not really clever enough) ending, there is a definite sense that the early promise and discipline of Moon has dissipated into a mediocre sludge of high concept hollowness and asinine, sugar-sweet romance.
The movie takes place at an unspecified point in the near future, when the US government has established the covert ability to analyse moments in time by hardwiring an individual’s brain to the mined memories of someone else, thus allowing the individual to become a part of the memorised ‘past’. As with all good sci-fi films there is some convoluted theory that has made this possible, in this case it is a calculus string that the designer Jeffrey Wright skirts over briskly when grilled by Jake Gyllenhaal’s agent. Each time Jake Gyllenhaal’s character is sent back through the ‘Source Code’ he experiences the same eight minute sequence. Inhabiting the body of a teacher who is travelling on a Chicago train with a female colleague, Michelle Monaghan, who seems to have an unspoken crush on him, Gyllenhaal must locate a bomb and figure out who the bomber is, before his eight minutes is up.
Jones’s early, and perhaps only, stroke of genius is to begin the film from the start of the eight minutes, with Jake Gyllenhaal’s character hearing a brief echo of a voice and waking up on the train opposite Monaghan. Gyllenhaal plays bug-eyed confusion particularly effectively and his bumbling activities represent what I assume will be many of the viewers own feelings of narrative disorientation. He doesn’t know who he is, where he is, or who this woman talking to him is. When he looks at his ID it isn’t his ID. On going to the toilet the face in the mirror is not his own. This opening sequence plays out like the pilot episode of one of my favourite sci-fi shows, Quantum Leap, only in microcosm. Just as Gyllenhaal’s character appears to be getting a handle on things the train carriage he is standing in is engulfed in a fireball explosion.
Gyllenhaal then wakes up in some kind of metallic cocoon, that actually wouldn’t look out of place in the Matrix – clearly where Source Code is headed with its central premise. Again where is he? After an extended moment of confusion a video panel switches on and Vera Farmiga’s officer takes Gyllenhaal through a series of memory tests to focus his mind on what he has just experienced. Gyllenhaal does the tests instinctively, as if they have been solidly drilled into his consciousness, but then he returns to the string of clarifying questions he has been asking of everyone since the opening of the film. At this point the perceptive viewer will notice that something is off in the way Farmiga addresses Gyllenhaal, but if you’re not so perceptive then don’t worry because Jones will ensure an awkward dramatic moment extends out long enough for you to suss.
Here lies Jones big problem, the film’s concept is all about remembering details, focusing on brief moments that are repeated, altered, modified and reprocessed, again and again and again – like memory, get it. This may well make for an interesting film if there was some sense of mystery, challenge, investigation, but from this ridiculously early stage the narrative has already bolted from its stable. What Jones is left with is 80 minutes of running time that have to be occupied with something other than who the bomber is (so obvious it hurts) and why Gyllenhaal is locked in this strange cocoon talking to people over a videophone (not quite so obvious, but not particularly surprising). Thankfully Gyllenhaal at least makes a sympathetic central character and the rapport he builds with Farmiga’s officer is one of the films exceptionally strong points (echoing Rockwell’s bonding with Spacey’s computer in Moon). However Jones would rather focus on the benign romance developing between Monaghan and Gyllenhaal in those annoying 8 minute ‘Source Code’ repetitions. At about the midway mark of the film Jones, himself, seems to get so bored with proceedings during those 8 minutes, that he slams together a series of rapidly edited condensed segments, pretty much making explicit, what has been implicit all along, that the centrepiece of the narrative is almost completely lacking in drama.
I don’t doubt that some people will find this movie entertaining. It does have its moments, tiny slithers, of tension, such as when Gyllenhaal follows an Arab gentleman around the station and then proceeds to assault him on the platform for his mobile phone, so he can prevent him detonating the bomb. It also mines some moments of absurd humour that echo the depths of loneliness to which Rockwell’s character, in Moon, sinks. Overall though it is a rather pedestrian piece of hokey sci-fi that would have looked passe in the 60’s and I sincerely hope that not too many viewers get as obsessively preoccupied with the quantum mechanics of the plot, otherwise I might have to make like our sweaty-palmed, overacting bomber and put humanity out of its misery.
If I were to sum Source Code up in just one sentence it would run like this: Groundhog Day, written by Joel Schumacher, directed by Tony Scott and produced by Will Smith. Oh… and as for Jeffrey Wright, Mr. Jones did at least have the decency to provide him with a crutch.