MOVIE REVIEW The last eight minutes

Source Code’s strength lies in its convincing characters

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Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan star in Source Code.
courtesy of Jonathan Wenk © 2010 Summit Entertainment, LLC


Source Code

Directed by Duncan Jones

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga

Rated PG-13

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Don’t let the title fool you into thinking that Source Code is a hacker movie, or even about anything remotely related to Course VI. “Source Code” refers to a fictional technology that lets people revisit the last eight minutes of a dead person’s life. In the wake of a bombing attack on a Chicago-bound train, the government sends Army Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) into the Source Code again and again to learn the identity of the bomber. Through repeated visits, Stevens falls for his fellow passenger Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) and tries to find a way to save her, even after repeatedly being told by his commanding officers (Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) that it would be pointless. Source Code, they explain, is “not time travel, but time reassignment.” If that didn’t make sense, don’t worry, because it’s all quantum mechanics and “parabolic calculus.” Tricky stuff indeed.

The plot sounds run-of-the-mill and gimmicky, but in director Duncan Jones’ hands, it turns into a strong and compelling story. He handles the material with the confidence of a much more experienced director and relies on strong emotional storytelling to keep the movie going at a good pace. It’s surprising that this is only Jones’ sophomore effort, though fans of his first work, Moon, can attest to his skill as a filmmaker. Both films explore similar themes of the everyman versus the institution, the contrast between appearance and reality, and the attempts to fight the inevitable. The most noticeable difference between Moon and Source Code is merely the scale of production; in the latter, Jones puts his larger budget to good use by upgrading the film’s visuals.

Jones also gets plenty of help from the cast: the chronically underrated Farmiga lends great charisma to a potentially boring, desk-bound role, and Gyllenhaal and Monaghan — an incredibly charismatic duo — eagerly sell the story at even its most unbelievable moments. That isn’t to say that the script isn’t well-written; despite the overreaching plot, screenwriter Ben Ripley lends a sly wit that keeps the film energized all the way to the end credits. The clever dialogue, combined with punchy cinematography from Don Burgess, brings a new dimension to each repetition of the train bombing. The first few times Stevens endures the harrowing eight minutes before his “death,” it’s all quick cuts and anxiety; by the end, wide shots and wry exchanges with his fellow passengers indicate the confidence that his character has developed.

It’s rare to find a thriller as well-executed as Source Code these days. Duncan Jones will undoubtedly be compared to Christopher Nolan for his ability to weave such a strong emotional core into a big-budget action flick. (Jones was actually under consideration to direct the Nolan-produced Superman reboot, but turned it down out of worries that he wouldn’t meet viewers’ high expectations.) Source Code contains echoes of both Memento’s creative storytelling devices and Inception’s gutsy and ambitious plot. In fact, Source Code succeeds where Inception failed — placing the emphasis on convincing characters, rather than keeping the focus on a hole-ridden plot. Take note, Christopher Nolan.

claude about 13 years ago

How were the characters in Source Code convincing? We learn nothing about Monaghan's character expect for a repeat reference to advice from the character Gyllenhaal's character takes over. Even Jake as the hero does nothing but guess at options to solve the problem. He has no intrinsic skills for the mission he was chosen for. He is a bad detective and is only accomplishes the mission because he has an unlimited number of times to fail.

Moreover, the concept of the Source Code machine is nonsensical. Even with the conceit that you can scan or otherwise tap into the last eight minutes of a person's life, how can that plus the Source Code recreation allow one to experience something that NO ONE experienced.

The bomb being in the bathroom. Jack chasing the bomber to his van, seeing the bigger bomb. All huge plot points that was not experienced by the teacher character Jake takes over. So where is that information coming from? The Source Code machine must be making it up, because it's not coming from the teacher character Jake is in control of.

How does the Source Code know where to put the bomb to for Jake to find? Or the license plate of the van that no one has actually seen. These aren't plot holes, they're black holes, and the suck any credibility the film has into nothingness. At the very least, if the Source Code machine can "guess" where the bomb is and be right, then they don't need to send Jake into the recreation. They just need to scan the Source Code code for the answers they are looking for.

If you think Nolan has ANYTHING to learn from Source Code, you need to rewatch both Memento and Inception, and then see that Source Code is a just very average action film with a flimsy sci-fi premise. Sure the leads are charismatic. But that's no substitute for substance.

And no, a guy on a train trying to stop a bomb is not an ambitious plot.

Carolyn about 13 years ago

Hi, Claude! First of all, thanks for commenting. I'm pretty new to writing film reviews, so feedback is always great.

Gyllenhaal's character sucks as a detective. He's hot-headed, impulsive, emotional, and lacking in the subtlety department. He's frustrating to watch, but at the same time, relatable - he's imperfect, like the rest of us. An everyman.

I agree that the plot holes in Source Code are large enough drive a truck through; please note that I don't speak of the plot too highly in my review. Bit there were plenty of plot holes in Inception too. Source Code wasn't marketed as the Future of Hollywood Blockbusters (quite the contrary - it looked pretty stupid and boring in the trailer), whereas Inception was touted as a revolutionary film with a mind-boggling plot. My expectations for each film were wildly different, and Source Code exceeded them while Inception fell short.

For a film that was promised to be one of Hollywood's most original, Inception really isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Just look at the story in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999), which featured similarly layered universes and (spoiler alert) an ambiguous, is-this-reality ending. (It wasn't that great of a movie, but I'm just comparing story elements here.)

Emotionally, I don't think Nolan pulled it off - it all just felt too contrived, especially since so much of the film's energy was devoted to the plot mechanics. With Source Code, Duncan Jones made a good directorial decision in ignoring serious attempts to explain the plot in lieu of moving the film forward in other ways. It pays off.