REVIEW: Absurd Source Code Repeats Its Mistakes, Eight Minutes at a Time
Duncan Jones has skills; he's an architect of emotional dislocation. The filmmaker reenters that purview where he left it -- in 2009's Moon -- for his new thriller, Source Code. It works for a while: The sci-fi action film has as chilling an introduction as you'll see this year. Jones' talents even tie in with the film's premise: Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself in another man's body, and has to continually relive the same eight minutes before a bomb detonates on a Chicago-bound train until he can figure out how to stop it. It's horror on a loop -- laboring to sift through where and who you are while trying to piece together a mystery with a running clock.
Moon was a philosophical, low-budget sci-fi tale about coming to terms with oneself while being exploited by an institution, a model of understatement that Jones piloted. Code adds those themes to an action-film frame: Working with editor Paul Hirsch (who cut some of Brian De Palma's finest suspense scenes in films like Obsession and Blow Out, which also addressed doggedly retracing one's steps), Jones compacts a movie's worth of fury, frustration and fear into the first five minutes. Yet while his ardor for bringing the shards of a disordered mind to the screen is nourishing at first, but then "Code" starts laying down its cards so dutifully that it disintegrates.
Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley understand that it's necessary to keep the film constantly exploding out of the starting blocks, because once Code settles into explaining why Colter is trapped in a video-game version of Santayana -- those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it -- the real work from the cast comes from the effort of keeping a straight face during the silly exposition. Saddled with CG effects that will only be passable on your smart phone, or from the back seat of a minivan, it's as if the looniness of the Code plot is out to undermine the highly wound, tightly cut beginning -- the camera shakes from too much adrenaline.
Most of the expository duty falls to Vera Farmiga, sitting on the verge of a heavy sigh in a military command center. She fills Colter in on his job -- find the terrorist bomber, save the world -- and does so unquestioningly, without mouthing the "Yada, yada, yada..." refrain undoubtedly going through the minds of restless viewers watching the same eight minutes played out again and again. Michelle Monaghan provides the other side of the feminine respective, a sort of love interest who doesn't understand why Colter doesn't seem to know her; she's the girlfriend of the guy whose body Colter has been shoved into. And, unlike Farmiga -- who at least knows the point of her job feeding the hapless solider pieces of info -- Monaghan is the irritated, and irritating, audience surrogate: a position that Gyllenhaal already serves. Ultimately, playing such a piece of machinery deemphasizes her likable, real-woman vividness.
Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, with his border-collie zeal, is just the guy to keep bouncing back after being blown up in a succession of "what-if" situations. But because of the repetitive nature of his quest -- he's forever being blown into bubbles, reliving the same brief period until he can figure out how to stop the bomb -- it's like he's on a mission find the final digits of Pi. It's up to Jeffrey Wright, as the administrator supervising the Source Code -- the machine that keeps firing Colter back, back, back to the recent past -- and his eccentric brio to keep the silliness from piling up like ash from his pipe. That's how you know this film is science fiction -- someone is smoking indoors in the United States -- and that Wright is a martinet whose malevolence must be checked.
Source Code finally concludes neatly and dully. Jones' instincts and Gyllenhaal's enthusiasm aren't enough to make it a feature; somewhere under all that bloat is the greatest short subject of all time. And if Jones' first two films prove anything, it's that he might be one of those filmmakers who can do more with fewer resources than with the cash supply to blow up a passenger train an attention-defeating number of times. At some point, Jones and his Source Code team convinced themselves that the gift wrap is more worthwhile than the gift itself. They ain't wrong.