Hollywood, pay attention, because Source Code could save you. In an era where studio’s pour millions of dollars into big budget franchise films based on board games or fucking Magic 8 balls, but quiver with fear at prospect of doing anything original, Source Code is the kind of film that Hollywood would do well to try to make more of. On the one hand, it’s incredibly cheap. It has a modest budget of 32 million dollars, and even with a completely terrible trailer (no offense to whoever made it, it’s not like they had an easy task) it’s already well on its way to making a profit. But on the other hand, it’s a completely original film that both bends the mind and pleases the crowd.
And I’ll have to admit, I was perhaps pre-disposed to be more pleased than most. Aside from having a nice healthy admiration for Duncan Jones last (also highly original and cool) sci-fi film, Moon, I also happen to be a proud lifelong Illinois resident and the story takes place almost entirely in locations I’m quite familiar with. The film opens with a montage of Chicago and the surrounding country that effectively shows off the beauty of my home state, and there’s something powerful about that familiarity. Maybe people in L.A. or New York have become jaded about it by now, I don’t know. But for me, I was a little shocked at how much pleasure I got from the fact that I was so familiar with the film’s locations. Even just the recognition of the little things, like the bathroom or the upholstery on the train excited me in a way few films do.
But Duncan Jones didn’t make this movie just for us here in the Land of Lincoln, and everyone else is going to need something more than an accurate depiction Chicago Metra trains. I expect that they’ll be pleased, although fans of Moon should be warned that this is a different sort of sci-fi. Moon was a Sci-fi film in the mold ofKubrick’s 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the kinds of sci-fi films that use the genre as a means to explore big ideas about humanity, rather than as an opportunity for spectacle or fantasy.Source Code has some of the former in it (as to how much, I’ll need a second viewing), but it seems clear that it was intended to be the latter. This is a commercial, popcorn Sci-fi, the kind of movie that asks you to accept its premise and be lenient on the details.
The film opens with Captain Colter Stevens finding himself on a train with no idea how he got there. He looks into a mirror and sees another man’s face looking back at him. He is utterly confused but it doesn’t matter because the train explodes and he wakes up in a strange metal pod, talking to a woman who is telling him he has to go into the “source code” which will allow him to relive the last 8 minutes of a man’s life in order to find out who is responsible for the bomb, so that they can prevent a second attack.
There will be those people whose brains will get all twisted up over the fact that none of the technology makes sense, but it doesn’t need to. In fact, what makes the narrative so effective is the film’s less-is-more approach to exposition. You start out knowing nothing, and the film pulls you along from there by effectively doling out new revelations at a slow and steady pace. The film quickly establishes a narrative structure that alternates between Stevens in the source code (the Train) and Stevens in the pod. The story unfolds like a puzzle coming together, with each new repetition offering a new piece that ups the stakes or alters your perspective.
Jake Gyllenhaal is very entertaining. He plays him as a somewhat impulsive and foolish guy, who nonetheless has a big heart and a likeable personality. The two female leads, Vera Farmiga and Michelle Monaghan do a good job with characters who are underdeveloped and not given a lot to do. Michelle Monaghan has an especially difficult job, since half her lines are repeated from earlier scenes. She comes across as sincere and likeable, and while more nuance would be better, it worked well enough for me.
The reaction to this film thus far has been highly positive, if a 90% on RottonTomatoes is any indication, but I’ve also seen a bit of a backlash on the internetzes and from some of the podcast critics (Filmspotting and Slashfilmcast, to be specific) about the end of the film. There is one final twist in at the end of the film, and there are some who are of the mind that if the film ended before this was revealed, it would be a better film. That might be true. But I think it works either way. I didn’t expect much more than an entertaining mind-bender done with some intelligence, and that’s what I got. I don’t think a small, original film by a director with art-house credentials has to be dripping in deeper themes any more than a straightforward popcorn movie needs to be a 200 million dollar production based on a popular franchise. Source Code occupies a far too vacant middle ground, and it’s high time Hollywood gave it some company.