'Source Code'

Complex Mechanics of Smart Sci-Fi Combined with a Human Dimension

by Jesse Hassenger

24 August 2011

Source Code seems perfectly suited to the strengths of Duncan Jones: chiefly, the way he can take a simple science fiction hook and build a little movie world around it.
cover art

Source Code

Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright

US DVD: 26 Jul 2011

Fans of Duncan Jones, the inventive sci-fi filmmaker behind Moon, might be surprised to learn that he did not write Source Code, his larger-budget follow-up. Nor did he apparently make large changes to the screenplay, at least according to the friendly DVD commentary featuring Jones, screenwriter Ben Ripley, and star Jake Gyllenhaal.

This seems odd only because Source Code seems so perfectly suited to the strengths Jones displayed in Moon: chiefly, the way he can take a simple science fiction hook and build a little movie world around it. In Moon, Sam Rockwell, often the only actor on screen, had a virtuoso turn as a lonely astronaut manning a lunar station. Source Code is less of a solo showcase: while Gyllenhaal has similar solitude as Colter Stevens, a soldier sent back into a computer-reconstructed memory of a bombing victim to find the identity of the perpetrator, we also see his military contact (Vera Farmiga), a scientist (Jeffrey Wright) whose “source code” makes the experiment possible, and Christina (Michelle Monaghan), his on-train love interest.

The idea of a love interest for a repeated eight-minute section of time—Stevens is sent back over and over, Groundhog Day-style, to interact with those eight minutes until he finds the bomber—might sound tricky, but Stevens has an unusual advantage. He is sent back into the body of Sean Fentress (though the audience sees Stevens/Gyllenhaal, the other characters see Fentress), who has apparently been flirting with Christina on their daily train commute. Their relationship develops—non-linearly, since only Stevens remember the previous trips back; Christina always starts over assuming all is well with Fentress—as he repeats the eight minutes.

Monaghan has been paired with a lot of actors during her token years as go-to casting for “the girl” in movies like Mission: Impossible III, Eagle Eye, and Due Date—movies that had little actual use for her, even when casting her opposite formidable male co-stars. But Monaghan’s chemistry with Gyllenhaal, while far from center stage, is palpably sweet. Jones frames them in a series of two-shots—against a fireball, against a train window—that have the fleeting, lyrical quality of their odd relationship, which is, after all, based on touchingly false pretenses.

In between missions, Stevens returns to a cockpit-like pod (more shades of Moon‘s isolation) to chat with his superiors and try to puzzle out what has happened to him. The film’s attention to detail is shown in these scenes, as well as the accompanying commentary track, where the filmmakers explain their aims in designing the pod and its variations. This makes the DVD’s separate pop-up trivia track even stranger: it offers factoids tangentially related to whatever is pictured onscreen, a free-associative curiosity that has little to do with the movie itself—a wasted opportunity for such a small yet comprehensively imagined film.

The film’s controlled imagination is demonstrated throughout the commentary, as the film itself. At one point, Jones notes that with modern filmmaking techniques, “acquisition of images becomes less important than manipulation of images.” Though he does both quite well, Jones’ work doesn’t call attention to itself; it prizes humanity over sci-fi fantasizing, even when its ideas are fascinating. The solution to the bomber plot becomes almost secondary—gripping, yes, but anchored more in the experiences of Colter Stevens than in the mechanics of a terrorism yarn. Jones understands the complex mechanics of smart sci-fi, and how a human dimension can prolong the lifespan of a neat idea.

Then there is the ending, which I must discuss and therefore issue a spoiler warning, though I will not go into great detail. Source Code is the kind of science-fiction movie some will say has the “wrong” ending, which is to say it reaches a logical stopping point but unexpectedly moves forward. Saying that a movie should’ve ended sooner often endorses—perhaps unintentionally, given the accompanying smugness—a more predictable, easily understood conclusion; think of the obvious waiting-under-the-sea end to A.I. that so many limited thinkers will insist is the “correct” and more Kubrickian ending (ignoring the intentions of the film’s actual director—or, for that matter, Kubrick himself).

The way that Source Code continues past a potential stopping point is consistent with the filmmakers’ approach throughout: they discuss the movie in terms more emotional than purely logical, and are happy to leave the sci-fi angle open to interpretation. The ending does this, and does it well; it leaves open the possibility of invisible alternate worlds appearing and disappearing based on perception. It ends, it also keeps right on beginning.

Source Code


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