After 2009’s Moon, I was worried about Duncan Jones running into a sophomore jinx. The trailer for Source Code didn’t exactly assuage my worries. And yet the rumors are true: Duncan Jones has delivered one of the most original, intriguing works of science fiction cinema around.
Sean Fentress (Jake Gyllenhall) wakes up on a Chicago-bound commuter train, disoriented. The woman sitting across from him, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), seems to know him. Confused, Sean claims to be Captain Colter Stevens, an Army helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. He tries to clear his head and figure out how he got to Chicago. Eight minutes later, the train car explodes.
Stevens wakes up inside a simulation chamber. On the display screen, Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) tells him that he is part of a military program named “Source Code”, and that despite his last memory of flying missions in Afghanistan, he has been with them for two months. The project, designed by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) is a sort of advanced, interactive version of a convenience store’s security cameras. Stevens is somehow connected to a simulation of reality extrapolated from the last eight minutes of short-term memory in someone’s life.
In this case, the memories are those of Fentress, who indeed died in the explosion. The bomb was planted as a demonstration of intent, and a dirty bomb is going to be set off within Chicago itself later in the afternoon. Fentress was a close enough match that they can send Stevens back into this simulation to search the train within the last eight minutes and find where the bomb is hidden and who planted it, in order to stop the second attack before it comes.
Now, this is not the hard science fiction of Moon; no attempt is made to explain the workings of the Source Code project, but luckily nothing really relies on the mechanism hanging together under scrutiny. The real questions about the nature and details of the project are much simpler and more visceral. They also depend on rolling out in their own time, so I won’t go any deeper than this.
That said, the movie’s secrets are more predictable in their way than those of Moon. Depending on your experience with these sorts of films, the truth may well come to you sooner than in the movie’s own time, and there’s never an overwhelmingly disorienting rearrangement of perspective like Moon had. Still, in their way they raise some enormous questions that I don’t think I’ve seen asked quite so piercingly, and which are well worth asking.
This, it seems, is why Jones does such excellent work: he remembers that the entire point of science fiction is to take us far enough outside of our everyday lives that we can ask questions that we would normally be deaf to. With Moon, it was easy to focus on the ideas because the film was so spartan in the first place. But now here we are with a significantly larger budget and much more talent attached, and he still manages to craft an intelligent, engrossing story rather than letting it turn into an overgrown mess like Mallrats.
Of course, credit is also due to the cast. Gyllenhall and Monaghan take center stage, of course, and they both perform ably. But Farmiga and Wright are where the real dynamic plays out. These two know the true nature of Source Code, and they’re the ones directly involved in the real events playing out. Stevens has to come to terms with his own truths, yes, but Goodwin is the one who has to balance conflicting truths. And her struggle plays out over Farmiga’s face even in the absence of any lines to speak.
More than anything else, it’s Farmiga’s work under his direction that marks Jones’ success. Moon was not just a fluke. And while Source Code may not quite be its equal, it still stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of science fiction cinema out there.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.