If Alfred Hitchcock were alive and directed a cross between The Matrix, Groundhog Day and Murder on the Orient Express it would resemble something along the lines of Source Code, the second feature from filmmaker Duncan Jones, whose 2009 debut Moon became an instant classic in the SCI-FI sub-genre of psychological cabin fever space dramas.
Starring Jake Gyllenhall as a flummoxed memory-zapped military operative who, along with the audience, discovers the purpose of and surreal circumstances surrounding his latest mission, Source Code joins Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu (2006) as a post-9/11 whodunit that presents a Phillip K. Dick-esque premise about how time cheating future technologies could be used to catch terrorists.
Neither are time travel movies but both come close. As the kooky genius professor character in Source Code explains, in an obligatory waffle in which he attempts to articulate the unfathomable (how to send someone back in time and into another person’s skin for precisely eight minutes, using daffy analogies like a light bulb that’s been switched off but still leaves a glow) we’re not talking “time travel” but “time realignment.”
In Déjà Vu Denzil Washington’s character used a technology that displayed a vision of a past alternate reality. He used that vision and jumped inside it to solve a mission in the present. In Source Code Jake Gyllenhaal also lives and interacts inside an alternate past reality but is regularly whisked back to “now”.
Screenwriter Ben Ripley’s kooky non-linear premise kicks off right from the get-go when Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train. He doesn’t know who he is or who the pretty girl he’s travelling with is. When he goes to the loo a different face – one he’s never seen before – looks back.
After a massive bomb blast goes off, turning the train into dust and rubble, Colter wakes up in a futuristic looking pod where a uniformed lady on a small screen (Vera Farmiga) explains that he’s part of a military mission to find a terrorist bomber. Where he was looked like real life, but was actually a complex simulation. Colter gets sent back again and again until he finds the culprit. The technology allows him to spend eight minutes in the skin of another person before they die.
Jones and Ripley would like us to regard the story as an against the clock thriller, but Source Code’s scrambled chronology prevents this from taking full effect; after all, the protagonist relives the same situation ad infinitum, to the point at which he knows the second everything occurs – i.e. “soda can!” “Coffee spill!” “Phone call!” Against the clock thrillers don’t tend to work when the clock is reset again and again.
Déjà Vu and Source Code each showed the potential to become anti-archetype classics but both wimped out in the end, favoring last minute fluff and rosiness. Their endings leave a sour taste of betrayal – a sense that the boldness and sass of the directors’ vision has been short-changed in favour of a making a more smile inducing car ride home from the cinema for Mr and Mrs General Public.
Source Code almost gets away with abruptly changing its tone by framing it in the context of a final-final twist, but not quite. Jones wraps the experience around the wrong way, like a magic routine with the best bits at the start and the shoddiest trick at the end. It’s a shame because the majority of the running time is top shelf stuff: edgy, innovative and exciting, with fabulous Hitchockian use of music and a bunch of entertaining performances.
Source Code’s structure provides a thoroughly original context for a whodunit. The film works well as a counter-argument to the old gripe that Hollywood is depleted of new and good ideas, which, when the ending comes around and the conventions kick back in, makes the salt sting in the wound just that little bit more.
It’s a long shot but we may end up getting a (real life) happy ending if the gods of DVD grant it to us. Source Code is a film that cries out for a Director’s Cut, a bold revision freed from the stranglehold of box office hungry producers. If that opportunity rolls around Duncan Jones will have to chance to reset his own clock, at least in an artistic sense, and unearth the full potential of this frustratingly flawed near classic.
Source Code’s Australian theatrical release date: May 5, 2011.