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.

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.

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.

Its structure provides a thoroughly original context for a whodunit. The film works 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.

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.

The details: Source Code is playing in cinemas nationally.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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