[Movies] Review: Source Code

Moon was one of the best science fiction movies to be released by a major Hollywood studio in the last decade. Inventive, original, witty, it dealt with the kind of metaphysical themes that are the hallmark of good, serious sci-fi, without forgetting to be entertaining. It was a brilliant, audacious feature debut from director Duncan Jones, who returned to cinema screens this month with Source Code, a more earthbound sci-fi thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

Like Moon, the film’s premise is not revealed straight away. Jones leaves the audience in the dark, allowing them to discover the nature of the world he’s created alongside the movie’s protagonist Colter Stevens. Its central conceit is implausible, but just about convincing enough to keep the audience in tow. Without wanting to reveal any more than the trailer, suffice it to say that Stevens is tasked with re-living the eight minutes leading to a horrifying event over and over again in the guise of one of those involved, in the hope of finding who was responsible.

That mechanic has been seen before, most notably in the Denzel Washington vehicle Deja Vu, a middling-to-good Tony Scott thriller that failed to wow audiences in 2006. Where Scott focused on overly technical explanations and high-octane car chases, Jones pares back the technobabble to the bare minimum and deals largely with the emotional impact of events, on those involved in the horrifying incident, on those who seeks to find that incident’s cause, and primarily on Stevens himself. Just as Moon took profound subjects like the nature of reality and identity and the possibility of life beyond death and stretched them to breaking point through the filter of corporate greed, so too here he uses the US military industrial complex and the war on terror as a lens to probe facets of philosophy that don’t normally get an airing in blockbuster Hollywood releases.

Image © 2010 Vendome Pictures

Image © 2010 Vendome Pictures

Unlike Moon though, Source Code is grounded in a more recognisable reality, and its central relationships are more conventional. Stevens falls for a girl, and is controlled by a superior military officer, rather than getting to know an alternate version of himself and being manipulated by a computer, as in Jones’ first film.

Thematically, at least then, Source Code is daring. It does what great science fiction does best, using extreme circumstance to explore the human condition. That it manages also to be an enthralling action thriller is testament to Jones’ rapidly emerging genius as a director.

Like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest it’s only towards the end of the movie that we, like our hero, begin to realise the full significance of what we have seen so far. There’s no cheap, Sixth Sense, moment, but there are clever twists that allow us to piece more and more of the film’s backstory together.

As Stevens works in eight minute chunks of the past to assemble clues as to who carried out the act of unspeakable destruction he’s tasked to investigate, we use the present day interludes that separate those flashbacks to try and work out what has happened to Stevens. Both puzzles work well, though its Stevens’ own story that is the most unconventional, and ultimately the most satisfying in its conclusion.

Gyllenhaal is fantastic. Always an able performer, he’s quickly proving to be that rarest of stars, a leading man who can marry appreciable acting talent, visual appeal and box-office draw. He’s ably assisted by a fine cast, including the excellent Vera Farmiga as Steven’s military liaison and Michelle Monaghan as his flashback love interest.

Source Code can’t come recommended highly enough. It’s thought provoking in all the right ways, while never slowing down into self-congratulationary introspection. It works as well as an action thriller as it does as a thought provoking metaphysical commentary, in the rare Hollywood tradition of movies like the Truman Show and Inception. In fact, it’s worth noting that while comparisons have been drawn between Christopher Nolan’s dream-bending action romp and this movie, Source Code is, in almost every sense, the superior film. While Nolan uses confusing mechanics to baffle his audience and over-complicate his action sequences, Jones deftly keeps things as simple as possible, while never watering down the depth of the questions his film addresses. Where Inception uses vagaries and ambiguity to create the artifice of profundity, Source Code uses simplicity and concision to provoke genuine depth. On top of that, it’s also a more watchable film.

So, in just two movies Duncan Jones has announced himself as the most talented science fiction filmmaker to emerge in the last two decades. If he can keep this up his career may even eclipse that of his rather more famous father.

9/10

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