Should I Watch..? 'Source Code'
What's the big deal?
Source Code is an action sci-fi thriller film released in 2011 and was written by Ben Ripley. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright and was directed by Duncan Jones. It follows the efforts of a US Army pilot to identify a mystery bomber on board a train who quickly discovers that he is apparently trapped in a time-loop and in the identity of a complete stranger. Critics noted the similarities with films like Groundhog Day and Deja Vu but nevertheless gave the film a positive reception when it debuted at the South By Southwest Festival on March 11th, 2011. Globally, the film went on to earn more than $147 million and is possibly one of the most under-rated films of this decade.
What's it about?
US Army pilot Colter Stevens suddenly wakes up on board a commuter train heading to Chicago. Feeling disorientated, Stevens realises that the woman sat opposite him recognises him as someone else - Sean Fentress. Panicking, Colter tries to explain to the woman that he is not Sean but without success. Colter heads to the bathroom and discovers that Christina is not lying - his reflection is that of a stranger, presumably Sean. As his confusion continues to spiral out of control, the train suddenly explodes and kills everyone on board.
Colter then wakes up in a dimly-lit chamber surrounded by machines and overseen by a TV screen through which he communicates with his "handler", Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin. Goodwin confirms Colter's identity as well as his mission: he must uncover the identity of the bomber within eight minutes. Believing that he is now part of some computer simulation, Colter is returned to the start of his time on the train with renewed purpose. But which reality can he trust and is there more going on than Colter realises?
Capt. Colter Stevens
Capt. Colleen Goodwin
Donald Stevens (voice only)
Release Date (UK)
1st April, 2011
Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller
What's to like?
As someone who believes that there are two types of science fiction film (the interesting & philiosophical and the spectacular & entertaining), I'm delighted to report that Source Code belongs to the former. It's refreshing to find a film that doesn't resort to tired sci-fi cliches like alien invasions and killer robots and instead focuses on a story with genuine intrigue and mystery. It may give up some of its secrets a little too easily but the film asks questions of you and makes you think. And these days, films like this are rarer than actual journalists at Fox News. Even Star Trek, the traditional home of science fiction as opposed to sci-fi, has become as much about phaser fire and alien war ships as it used to be about exploring the human condition amid the distant stars and galaxies of deep space.
Holding the film's improbable narrative together, Gyllenhaal proves his versatility as an actor who is equally adapt at the action scenes as he is conveying the torment felt by his character. He and Monaghan as the bemused and scared love interest bring an all-too-human side to a story that does feel reminiscent of other time-loop films - especially Tom Cruise's Edge Of Tomorrow which came out a few years after this. Jones is already an accomplished sci-fi director having brought us the equally under-rated Moon in 2009 and his grasp of the film and its many layers demonstrates his confidence in the script. He delivers a film that satisfies both action fans (who doesn't love an action sequence on a train, after all?) as well as those seeking a decent mystery to unravel and when was the last time you saw a film that promised that?
- The original plan for the film was to shoot at an actual train station but the owners of the station changed their minds at the last minute. As a result, the film-makers had to build their own replica station in a car park.
- Christina's ringtone is the song The One And Only by Chesney Hawkes, the same song that acts as Sam's alarm in Moon.
- Ripley's inspiration for the film's villain is loosely based on a real individual called David Hahn who attempted to build a nuclear source in secret when he was a Boy Scout aged 17. Secretly gathering radioactive materials from everyday household items, he was caught by chance after he had already begun dismantling his lab due to excessive background radiation 1000 times greater than normal. A film based on a book about Hahn, The Radioactive Boy Scout, is apparently in development.
What's not to like?
There's no denying that the film's story isn't as original a concept as it supposes - Source Code combines elements of Quantum Leap, Groundhog Day and Deja Vu to create a tense and gripping thriller that feels bigger than the sum of its parts. But Jones has followed up on his debut by delivering a film that deliberately steers clear of the usual Hollywood sci-fi tropes of huge effects and futuristic aliens that look suspiciously like actors under heavy makeup. This is a film that rewards viewers who have become jaded with sci-fi, associating it with poorly adapted films like I Am Legend or Elysium. Just because it feels familiar doesn't mean it should have been ignored at the time.
Personally, I wanted a bit more exposition on Capt Stevens' prior experience and the workings going on behind Goodwin's screen. Monaghan also feels under-written which is a shame because her character offers much more than just mere eye-candy opposite our hero. But generally speaking, Source Code is well written, performed and directed and I'd be nit-picking if I dug any further. I could reveal more but I don't want to - you are best off knowing as little as you can about the picture so you can enjoy it all the more.
Should I watch it?
If there was any justice in the world then Source Code should have made at least $500 million because it deserved to - it's a rare blend of excitement, intelligence and tension that delivers far more than I expected to. Gyllenhaal reminds us that he can be a superb leading actor while Jones illustrates his potential to become a visionary director in the future. More people need to be talking about this film because, quite frankly, I loved it.
Great For: jaded fans of sci-fi, audiences looking for a film to challenge them, Duncan Jones' reputation
Not So Great For: people who think Star Wars is science fiction, the easily confused, people expecting wall-to-wall action
What else should I watch?
If the difference between science fiction and sci-fi isn't obvious by now, allow me to explain. Science fiction (at least, in cinematic circles) are films that deal with actual themes associated with the genre - man vs machine, AI, space exploration and its implications, etc - in an intelligent way that makes the viewer think. I would classify films such as Minority Report, Blade Runner and The Martian within this category of films. All of these are excellent films that pose questions to the viewer about the risks of precognition, whether artificial intelligence can be considered sentient and man's inherent instinct for survival. One other I'd recommend is the very trippy Inception which not just works as an intelligent thriller but also a visually stunning and unique cinema experience.
The trouble is, cinema has long abused the term "science fiction" by countless films depicting killer robots (or comic mechanical sidekicks), space battles with bright coloured lasers fired across the screen and as many murderous alien species as you can imagine threatening to wipe mankind out. Hence, the term sci-fi which I use for this more entertaining efforts that tend to focus more on effects than the narrative. However, these can still be greatly enjoyed despite the lack of focus - Terminator 2: Judgment Day might have a great script but it doesn't challenge you as a viewer. It just blows you away with its explosive action sequences, thrilling car chases and Arnie's iconic performance as everyone's favourite leather jacket-wearing cyborg.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox