Source Code

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A thick slice of science fiction time loop ham, “Source Code” serves up a (moderately) thinking person’s action thriller superior to much of its competition. Sure to be embraced by the fanboys and fangirls taken with “Moon,” “Source Code” is the second feature to be capably helmed by Duncan Jones, a filmmaker whose interests in character and emotion appear to outweigh any pressure to depend solely on the mechanics of plot. Even so, both “Moon” and “Source Code” burrow deeply into rigidly machined “wrinkles” that govern narrative.

For gamers, much of the fun to be had in “Source Code” lies in the Sisyphean labor of U.S. Army Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot who awakes to find himself on a Chicago-bound commuter train in the body of another man. Inserted a mere eight minutes prior to a deadly explosion, Stevens must locate the source of the concealed bomb and uncover the identity of its architect, and then share that information with the big brains at the top-secret intelligence operation that provides the movie with its title. Easier said than done, and it is not even easily said.

The disoriented Stevens understandably fails the first eight minute pass of his new mission, but the nature of the brain-teasing plot device allows him to be reinserted as many times as it takes to satisfy (or exhaust, depending on your point of view) the gimmick. Doomed to literally relive the final moments of life, Stevens adapts to the environment, manipulating the variables to assemble more and more of the puzzle with each new trip through the impossible portal. Like the popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, or an energized Phil Connors, Stevens makes new choices that lead to new outcomes, not all of them favorable.

Stevens is assisted and abetted by two women. Trained in the Source Code program, Vera Farmiga is a fellow soldier who communicates with Stevens between each “insertion” into the repeated pattern. While these intervening conversations interrupt the possible monotony of the looping cycle, the physical distance between the two – they only interact via video conference – highlights the expositional function of Farmiga as guide and rudder. Michelle Monaghan, playing the supportive love interest/helper for what seems to be at least the tenth time, is Stevens’s seatmate, a passenger unaware of the imminent danger. Her optimistic mien is a welcome contrast to the panicked intensity of Stevens, and adds to the hero’s sense of urgency.

Most critics will not resist comparing “Source Code” to “Groundhog Day” – arguably the time loop movie nonpareil – coupling the reference with some other high concept rollercoaster ride (Jan de Bont’s “Speed” does nicely). When presented with smarts, wit, and attention to detail, the “snap back” structure can achieve a dazzling degree of viewer satisfaction. The Twilight Zone’s classic “Shadow Play” and “Run Lola Run” both make the cut. “Source Code,” however, flirts with but never embraces the fullness of the ethical dilemmas confronting the characters (Stevens inside the “source code” and Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Rutledge in the “real world”), content to use the time loop as a set of jumper cables for the thrill ride that follows.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/11/11.

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