Saturday, April 2

Source Code - an engaging sci fi thriller

Source Code directed by Duncan Jone, written by Ben Ripley

Imagine waking up on a train.  You don’t know how you got there.  You don’t know who the lady sitting across from you is, even though she seems to know you.  Your last memory is flying helicopters in Iraq.  Looking in the mirror you don’t see your face…you see someone else.  Your driver’s license says, “Sean” – not your name.  Then the train explodes and you are consumed in a ball of fire.  Only you don’t die.  You wake up in a metallic chamber surrounded by wires, a screen on the wall.    Eventually a woman tells you that the train was real and had been bombed by terrorists who threatened to strike again.  The machine you are in is called the Source Code.  It lets you relive 8 minutes of someone’s life, someone from the train, in a sort of alternate universe which mirrors our exactly.  Your mission is to discover the terrorist within the Source Code so that they can be stopped in your world before detonating a dirty bomb.  You will repeat the assignment until complete.

What do you do?

This is what happens to Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhall) in Source Code.  The lady across from him is Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who apparently knows Sean from the daily commute into Chicago.  Vera Farmiga plays Goodwin, the woman who gives Coulter instructions between jumps, and Jeffrey Wright plays Dr. Rutledge, the creator of the Source Code.

Duncan Jones directs this fast paced sci-fi thriller without ever losing sight of the plot or the characters.  With each jump back into the Source Code, we learn more about Coulter and about Christina.  Duncan also doesn’t let supporting characters fade into the background too, as Goodwin is given plenty of opportunity for character development.

Out of all of the movies or TV shows to use the Groundhog Day effect, this is probably the best I’ve seen it used.  Usually this effect is random, and continues until the character makes the right choice, after which the story finally progresses outside of whatever time loop has been created.  Groundhog Day is the most famous example of this, though I have seen several Star Trek episodes utilize the same technique.  It’s almost a choose-your-own-adventure for the characters, especially since they soon realize death just starts the loop over again.

One of the great things Source Code does to break out of the clichés in this effect is the have an outside story.  Between loops, Coulter returns to the real world (I say real world for lack of a better word since an alternate reality could still be considered real).  His jumps happen after the actual terrorist bombing, and the terrorists promised to strike again.  This gives an excellent ticking clock in the script, and great incentive for the bomber to be found, because real lives are at risk.  Also, he is given only 8 minutes, which is an incredibly short length of time.  This helps ratchet up the tension as well.

The entire cast is excellent, giving their characters real emotion.  It is great to see the relationship between Coulter and Christina grow, even though at the beginning of each jump Christina is no longer aware of any developments.  Also, Goodwin agonizes over her ability to help Coulter.  Rutledge is her superior and seems to want Coulter more in the dark about full details surrounding the event that Goodwin thinks are necessary.

Coulter himself is just a great character.  His last memory is of being on active duty in Iraq.  Between then and waking up after his first time on the train in the Source Code there are no memories.  Since the Source Code is an identical/alternate reality he uses those 8 minutes on the train to not only try to search for the bomber, but also piece together what happened to him.

That said, there are weaker moments in the story.

The first is that after returning from his first time on the train, Coulter is almost immediately sent back and is told to find the bomb.  Goodwin and Rutledge don’t want to waste time – they need to find the terrorist.  However, it isn’t until a couple of jumps later that they finally tell Coulter why they need to find the bomb.  Until that point, he thinks it’s just a training simulation.  While it is funny to watch Coulter treat it as a simulation, it doesn’t make any sense for him not to know about the terrorist bombings.

Second, though the relationship progressed nicely between Coulter and Christina, there were a few cheesy moments.  It seems hard to do good scenes with romantic tension in a sci-fi movie.

Still, this is an excellent movie, and easily the best movie I have seen so far this year.  If you enjoy a good sci-fi or thriller, this should be an enjoyable movie.

This is Duncan Jones’ 2nd film, his first being Moon, one of the best Science Fiction movies in recent years.  I deeply hope Jones continues to direct smart, engaging sci fi movies.  We need something to balance out Transformers.

4/5 stars

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