Any nerd worth his calculator watch can tell you that the term “source code” refers to the set of instructions that make up a computer program. This is why using that term as the name for experimental military software, which happens in Duncan Jones’ Source Code, is absurd – it would be like titling this article “Words”. Fortunately, the lax application of scientific terminology is one of only two real complaints I have with this modest but efficient sci-fi thriller. Like Jones’ underrated Moon, Source Code wrings a surprising amount of ideas and suspense out of a minimal set of cinematic elements.
Code opens with a thrillingly context-free scene that plays like yuppie-populated Kafka. A man (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in a commuter train without any idea of who he is, how he got there instead of the Afghanistan deployment he remembers, and why the pretty woman in the adjacent seat (Michelle Monaghan) is speaking to him like an old friend. These, however, are minor inconveniences compared to the fact that mirrors now stare back at him with a completely different face, and that he wakes up in a rusty metal capsule outfitted with video screens when the train is destroyed in a massive explosion.
Jones is very canny about slowly letting his main character and the audience in on the details of the scenario, so it would be unwise to say too much about what exactly is happening. Suffice to say that as part of a military experiment hoping to prevent another terrorist attack, this former military captain is forced to continually relive a simulated version of the final eight minutes on that train before the explosion in an attempt to find the perpetrator. It’s one part Quantum Leap and one part Groundhog Day, with a healthy sprinkling of post-Patriot-Act paranoia – lurking behind the larger threat of the bomber is the eerie specter of the creepy program creator (Jeffrey Wright) and his cold-as-ice assistant (Vera Farmiga).
Like a lot of science fiction films, Code manages to be both surprisingly smart and thoroughly dumb at the same time. As the questions of just who and where the characters actually are turn out to have more complicated answers than you might guess, Code raises some pretty meaty existential questions about the meanings of identity and human experience. It also is more insulting than most movies in explaining away the logical holes in its simulated time-travel technology. To summarize the approach, Jeffrey Wright says the word “quantum” a lot and at one point actually says “The Source Code is a gift! Don’t squander it by thinking!”
The thing is, though, that as the movie is playing, you won’t necessarily want to, since the other pleasures of the film are quite satisfying. There’s a great free-world-videogame/Choose-Your-Own-Adventure joy to watching as Gyllenhaal winds through multiple permutations of the situation, with minor changes in his choices rippling out into new and different possibilities. Furthermore, Jones is terrific at making the feelings underlying this mindbender of a film carry great emotional heft. As Gyllenhaal’s character repeats his journey over and over, he develops a kind of doomed romance with the woman he can only know for eight minutes at a time, and the impossible devotion that he develops to a woman and a set of passengers already destroyed by fate and time is . It’s the kind of human pull that techno-thrillers of this sort don’t always manage to create successfully, and it’s an essential element to making this film more than an appealing logic puzzle.
That is, until the second major complaint I have kicks in. There’s a beautiful moment about 80 minutes or so into the film which seems like the most natural ending point for this film – and then the film keeps going. That final tacked-on coda is a half-hearted attempt to add a new dimension (literally and figuratively) to the film by questioning the basis of what came before, like the last shot in Inception. That change, however, dive-bombs everything that was fascinating and poignant about the preceding eighty minutes – it feels like a studio attempt to tack on a happy ending to a film that already had a relatively happy sort of ending.
Ignore that ending (hell, walk out when you get to that moment – you’ll know) and you still have an accomplished sci-fi gem that is thought-provoking, moving, and perhaps most importantly, not a sequel or a remake. It’s an impressive sophomore showing for a director that we’ll no doubt be seeing a lot more from – Duncan Jones doesn’t just make good movies, he makes the kind of good movies that represent a pretty small risk to studios wary of big budgets. Source Code, after all, eschews overblown production values for few standard-issue sets (a train, a military office, a metal-walled room), one bona-fide movie star and an assortment of talented character actors, and just a smidgen of CGI. On the cheap, Jones creates a movie with more smarts and substance than most of the drowning-in-cash idiot-spectacles that clog the multiplexes. As I mentioned, the plot’s one early-90s TV inspiration is Quantum Leap, but the director takes after a character from another show of that era – he’s a sort of cinematic MacGyver.