Cineworld Glasgow, 08.04.11
Duncan Jones arrived in 2009 with the sci-fi psychological drama Moon, which benefitted massively from Sam Rockwell’s brilliant portrayal of multiple versions of himself, and was a smartly, slickly directed debut. If there was one drawback to the film, it was that it took bits and pieces from several sci-fi films of the past (computer malfunctioning; mental stress of being alone in space) and gave a feeling of déjà vu, although admittedly carried off with great assurance and with enough fresh twists to feel like it had something new to offer to the genre. There is a similar feeling to his follow-up Source Code, but once again, Jones has taken a two popular sci-fi and film conventions – time travel and theories of parallel universes – and concocts a film that feels generic and fresh at the same time.
The plot revolves around US army helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens, (Jake Gyllenhaal), who awakes to find himself on board a passenger train heading into Chicago, sitting opposite a strange female, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). His last memory is of flying a mission in Afghanistan. Eight minutes later a bomb destroys the train, killing everyone on board, but Stevens awakes inside a capsule, being instructed via monitors by Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). Gradually, Stevens learns he is inside the ‘Source Code’, a machine which allows him to take over the body of someone for the last eight minutes of their life. He has been sent back to live the last moments of Sean Fentress, in order to discover who blew up the train, and prevent a further terrorist attack. As he repeatedly lives the same eight minutes he gets closer to discovering the identity of the bomber, but also to discovering his own story, and determined to try to save the life of Christina and prevent the train from exploding, despite the warnings against doing so of the ‘source code’s’ inventor Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright).
The most striking similarity is to the 1980’s and 90’s American TV series Quantum Leap, where each week Dr. Sam Beckett, played by Scott Bakula, would transport from the future into the body of different people from the past in order to correct events in the past and ensure the future develops as it should. There is a neat cameo from Bakula here (and listen very carefully to pick out a deliberate bit of dialogue taken straight from Quantum Leap), which openly acknowledges the connection. But Jones is smart enough to update the formula to include modern-day worries about terrorism, war and the danger of scientific advancements, mixed with larger issues about life and morals. Like the best episodes of Quantum Leap, the life that Stevens inhabits is used to reflect on his own life and issues. Jones uses the convention from Leap that although everyone in the film sees Stevens as Sean Fentress, the body he inhabits, the audience and Stevens’ himself visually see Colter Stevens (ie Jake Gyllenhaal). We only briefly glimpse how the rest of the train passengers see Stevens when he looks in the mirror and his reflection is that of Fentress (Frédérick De Grandpré), à la Leap. This allows the audience to identify with Stevens and his search for his own truth, while we learn almost nothing about Sean Fentress. But it is also justified as the events, it conspires, both in the ‘train’ world and in the capsule of ‘source code’, are both spaces that only exist in Stevens’s head. This threatens to complicate the film at its end, but a beautifully crafted plot twist legitimises the representation of Fentress as Stevens/Gyllenhaal.
Jones manages to keep the repetition of the same eight minutes fresh by moving the story on with each trip back to the same moment in time, and by jump cutting rapidly through the same events. Again this is a tradition that has existed in movies for a long time, including films where the same event is seen from different perspectives, such as Rashomon (1950, Akira Kurosawa) or more recently Vantage Point (2008, Pete Travis), or time travel allowing the repetition and altering of events such as the Back to The Future trilogy (1985-90, Robert Zemekis) or Deja Vu (2006, Tony Scott, a film that critic David Thompson described as ‘one of the worst films ever made, and irresistable.’*). Jones finds enough style and pace to keep the film feeling fresh, and is helped by its tight running time of under 100 minutes. Gyllenhaal does well, and its good to see after the mis-step of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010, Mike Newell), that he can do intelligent action well. Monaghan, Farmiga and Wright all provide solid support. Incidentally, another film this year that gave fresh appeal to an old-fashioned style of movie-making was Tony Scott’s excellent Unstoppable, which was also set on the railroad. There’s something about travelling by rail that lends itself to movie-making, again going back to the tradition of the very first images of L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Train Pulling into a Station) by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895.
As with all time travel/parallel universe stories and films, if you stop to examine the plot too closely its easy to find faults in the logic, but none are glaring enough to detract from an enjoyable film, and Jones definitely stands out as a story-teller and director to watch in the future. Definitely worth seeing.
Film Rating: 4 out of 5.
*The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 5th Edition (2010) by David Thomson