Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews Source Code

Duncan Jones, son of musician David Bowie, erupted onto the Hollywood landscape with his critically lauded film Moon – which the filmmaker both wrote and directed. Moon, which starred Sam Rockwell (and the disembodied voice of Kevin Spacey), was a fascinating and intimate science-fiction project that stirred up a lot of buzz following its debut at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival – putting Jones on the map as one of Hollywood’s premiere up-and-coming filmmakers.

As a result, Moon fans, and critics alike, have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Jones’ follow-up film, Source Code. That said, unlike Moon, Jones is only sitting in the Source Code director’s chair – since the film was scribed by Species III (a direct to DVD release) screenwriter, Ben Ripley. Does Jones successfully inject the same care into Ripley’s first feature film as he did with his own script, Moon?

Read on to find out.

Source Code doesn’t possess the same intimacy, brains, or stand-out performances as Jones’ prior work but it still manages to deliver an entertaining, albeit flawed, time at the theater. It’s certainly not fair to directly compare Moon, a sci-fi heavy character drama, and Source Code, a dramatic-thriller with sci-fi elements, but fans that were expecting another deep and thought-provoking project from Jones, might be left a bit unfulfilled. For moviegoers looking for a smarter-than-average thriller, Source Code is likely to deliver.

If you’re unfamiliar with the basic premise of Source Code, here’s the official synopsis:

When decorated soldier Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in the body of an unknown man, he discovers he’s part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train. In an assignment unlike any he’s ever known, he learns he’s part of a government experiment called the Source Code, a program that enables him to cross over into another man’s identity in the last 8 minutes of his life. With a second, much larger target threatening to kill millions in downtown Chicago, Colter re-lives the incident over and over again, gathering clues each time, until he can solve the mystery of who is behind the bombs and prevent the next attack.

The story plays out somewhat like the 2006 Tony Scott/Denzel Washington film, Deja Vu – except with a “grittier” tenor. The Source Code cast approach the proceedings very seriously and, at times, the detachment works to the film’s advantage – playing to the larger thematic elements, such as duty and sacrifice, that arise as the story progresses. Jones also succeeds at bringing the same subtle touches to this film as he did Moon – striving for engaging drama within a complicated, but at the same time limited, setting. As a result, moment-to-moment Source Code will keep an audience engaged; however, the overall film staggers under the weight of the lofty sci-fi concept – limping forward until it comes to rest at an unearned conclusion.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Captain Stevens in 'Source Code'

Gyllenhaal gives an adequate performance as Captain Stevens, successfully balancing the character’s confusion, mission, and personal story effectively. Each jump to the train allows Stevens to take a slightly different approach to the mission – creating moments of subtle humor, tense drama, and surprisingly believable sympathy. That said, for a character that’s written as a master of details (and memory) – the script fails Stevens by routinely showing the Captain’s difficulty at understanding the most basic elements of the Source Code premise. The result: too much exposition – that is subsequently regurgitated repeatedly.

Stevens serves as a sufficient protagonist, but the stark Source Code tone wreaks havoc on the supporting characters (in spite of a number of charming performances, especially Vera Farmiga) – reducing everyone but Stevens to caricature: a manipulative overseer, a dutiful soldier, as well as a beautiful and strong-willed love interest. Given the numerous jumps back to the train, as well as the overarching disorientation created by the story withholding information for the sake of drama, it’s hard to get to know anyone but Stevens – since the characters are either trapped by the recycled events of the past or because, in the present, their motivations (and subsequently their emotions) are concealed for too long. As a result, it’s hard to appreciate their respective journeys – since we barely knew them in the first place.

The most egregious example of the less-than-stellar character development is presented by the film’s terrorist – whose motivation, as well as on-screen portrayal, are both anti-climactic. Since two hundred people die in the first five minutes of the film, the threat appears unrelenting but, as the curtain is peeled back, the story seems less and less interested in paying-off the brutality of the original attack – reducing the villain to nothing more than one empty box on Stevens’ “wrongs to be righted” checklist.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan in a scene from 'Source Code'

Fans looking for a competent sci-fi story may also feel a bit cheated since, not only is the logic of Source Code’s basic premise somewhat convoluted (and contradicted within the actual film), the final act creates a myriad of awkward and baffling long-term implications that the film never earns – and, from a closely-examined character standpoint, aren’t particularly fulfilling. It’s science-fiction so of course the audience is expecting to suspend disbelief, but given the events in the final act, it’s hard to ignore that either a) the Source Code scientists are the worst researchers on the entire planet or b) the Source Code writer/filmmakers were in over their heads by the end.

In spite of the over-complicated premise, Source Code succeeds at offering an above-average dramatic-thriller with some interesting sci-fi ideas for fans of the genre to debate. There’s no doubt that moviegoers will likely enjoy the ride; however, aside from minute-to-minute story beats, the film falls short of being as smart as it seemingly aimed to be – and will undoubtedly leave many audience members baffled at the story’s lasting consequences.

If you’ve already seen the film and want to talk about its details without ruining it for others, head over to our Source Code spoilers discussion to chat about anything that could spoil the experience for those who haven’t seen it yet.

However, if you’re still on the fence about Source Code, check out the trailer below:

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Follow us on Twitter @benkendrick and @screenrant and let us know what you thought of the film.

Source Code is now playing in theaters.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5

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