Knowing nothing about it, I happened to watch Source Code a few weeks ago at a party. It’s very rare for me to begin watching a film with absolutely no knowledge of its content, cast or crew but here I was completely in the dark. It’s worth considering how this might affect our opinion of a film. Should its publicity or reputation be factored into the overall film experience? I found it quite refreshing here to be able to judge the film purely on its own merits, only finding out other details later (like that it was directed by David Bowie’s son!). Yes, Source Code was directed by Duncan Jones and released in 2011.
Being in an age where the science fiction genre in film is dominated by high-budget, infuriatingly dense blockbusters – I may have mentioned this before – where Transformers, Iron-Man, The Avengers and Avatar are all in the top ten highest-grossing films of all time (though the list looks slightly better when adjusted for inflation), a simple, idea-based science fiction film is always a breath of fresh air. Source Code tackles the idea of a machine which can send a consciousness back in time to relive the final 8 minutes of a person’s life. Here, Captain Colter Stevens finds himself in the body of Sean Fentress on a train which was destroyed in a terrorist bombing. He relives this experience again and again as he is tasked with finding the culprit, meanwhile trying to discover the circumstances of his ‘death’.
I’m highly impressed with the way the film gradually teases us with information and answers. The revelations that Colter is clinically dead besides minimal brain function, that Goodwin can only see his words written on a screen and then the final, shocking revelation of just how wounded he really is all brilliantly develop the concept. This occurs alongside a general shifting of perspective from Colter to the other characters, which is achieved effortlessly. Then, everything is perfect about the final revelation that the source code creates parallel worlds. The tone, the acting, music… It proves that you don’t need gratuitous senseless action or violence to make a film interesting. Where there is violence it serves a purpose, is never repetitive and advances the film. This alone makes Source Code a far superior film to most others I’ve seen recently.
But that’s not all the film has going for it. It’s intelligently written and Jones’ direction is extremely skilled yet subtle. After watching the film I realised the story had taken place over just three sets, but amazingly never felt constrained or claustrophobic. Jones and his crew made so many good decisions on even the small things, like creating a sense of fluidity with great over-the-shoulder shots and seamless movement. The train was so realistic, with either the set or the camera having a slight jiggle and the scenery rushing past the windows as it would a real train. Surely they didn’t make the film on an actual train? It’s so realistic I can’t be certain.
The acting is essential in selling the complex ideas. Jake Gyllenhaal was great as the tormented and confused, but eventually dedicated Colter. I found the character occasionally veered into “typical arrogant male protagonist” territory, but when contrasted with his scenes of humility and sobriety proved to be a well-balanced character. Likewise, Christina by Michelle Monaghan was never written to be a deep character, considering we mostly only see the same 8 minutes of her life, but she does feel like a three-dimensional person. Goodwin, played by Vera Framiga, is by far my favourite character. She is written and acted as first as an unthinking member of the military who obeys orders without question, but creates a convincing and moving bond with Colter – remarkable considering she’s only seeing words on a screen – and, against her orders, lets him die as he wished. I also enjoyed Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Rutledge.
If I had to pick a flaw in the film, which is difficult, I would say that the source code idea could have been taken further. I was left wanting more – while definitely a sign of a good film, also means it must have been even partially unsatisfying. Speaking about the film with a friend, his view was that the idea was too big for one film and I completely agree. I read something about a planned television series on the source code concept… ? That would be a great premise! There’s so much they could do.
In conclusion, Source Code is a masterpiece. It perhaps isn’t the most memorable film but it’s an example of science fiction as its best. It takes a concept and explores it, having great fun in the process. I have heard good things about Duncan Jones’ so far only other film, Moon, and intend to watch that too.
Final rating: 9.5/10