To dissect Duncan Jones’ debut film Moon is to discover the re-engineering of a tired sub-genre of science fiction. The mythology of Moon, although somewhat trite, is laced with visionary elements that elevate what could have easily become another derivative entry into sci-fi lore.
In Source Code, conversely, Jones’ choices seemed forced and studio-mandated.
The weathered texture of his previous effort is supplanted by a varnished music-video look, and what could have been a complex indie head-trip becomes a mainstream potboiler, with a veneer of art.
The overt product placement and unfortunate reliance on unconvincing visual effects dilute Jones’ vision. In effect, Source Code is the film Moon would have been if the thrust of its creation was financial gain.
Written by sci-fi scribe Ben Ripley, Source Code presents an intriguing minimalist yarn about a soldier named Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) who wakes up aboard a commuter train in the body of another man and becomes entangled in an experimental type of crime solving. His mission, as explained by his superiors Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) and Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), is to find a bomber aboard the train in eight minutes flat.
Altogether, the rollicking 94 minutes we’re given with these characters is not enough to involve us on more than a superficial level. Both Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan, who plays the bewitching Christina Warren, are believably tragic paramours, but their rushed romance never feels earned.
Each character is an object, not a person, so even in the moments when Gyllenhaal experiences agony, a distracting insincerity looms.
Farmiga, who traditionally disappears into this sort of Wonder Woman role, is simply there to facilitate the film’s happy ending and is altogether insubstantial. The laughable Jeffrey Wright isn’t afforded the proper dimensions necessary to make him human to the audience, and Michael Arden, known in the film as Derek Frost, exudes only a fraction of the necessary subdued madness that would make his everyman villain work.
The script, independent of the execution, is a seminal mainstream work. The plotting is ingenious, and the inherent repetition required by the story’s curious conceit never allows for dull moments: The dynamism of the film is bolstered by a pulse-pounding score.
That said, the majority of the movie takes place in claustrophobic interior locations (a train) and the sweeping underscore seems to overcompensate for what the composer saw as inherent narrative restrictions.
Many of the crescendos seem to plead for car chases and gunfire, but Ripley’s script was never about action thrills. He could have tethered us along a bit better by dropping subtle and organic hints about the meaning of the source code, the set of instructions which Colter must decode to catch a bomber, but this film is fundamentally about love, and, in a more sci-fi sense, falling in love with someone who is already dead.
We know the film is about love because Ripley breezes through all of the explanations of “source code,” giving more importance to the romantic arc.
But when you hurl a furiously dramatic character into an ordinary world, there is an automatic tendency toward comedy.
With such a stark contrast between emotional extremes, the tonal shifts are jarring and laugh-inducing. Despite his motivations as a soldier on a mission, none of Gyllenhaals’s outbursts feel justified, especially as he targets innocent bystanders, mistaking them for nefarious bombers.
Obviously, he needs to make mistakes before capturing the real culprit, but the way he brashly attacks other passengers is overwrought and ultimately silly.
The main issue with the suspense in this film is what could be referred to as the “Allsburg-syndrome,” named after the author of children’s books Jumanji and Zathura.
Although the train could blow at any moment, we never feel unsafe and we experience a videogame-like security. No matter what, the character has multiple opportunities to “beat the game,” which diffuses all tension.
Source Code is not an abomination by any means, but it is a missed opportunity. There are dozens of commendable moments, but the film lacks a mesmerizing quality that would have placed it near the top of the list of successful recent sci-fi films.
Source Code, however, as both a thriller and a romance, feels terribly manufactured.