Always nice to find a near complete review in my notes to post – I just watched this again today and I really didn’t expect it to stand up so well a second time around. Aside from a little tidying up and corrections/additions most of the below was written after I first saw it in 2011. I guess I didn’t post it then ‘cos I was still in the mode of trying to write about everything I watched in the order I watched things and had a backlog that I never got round to… I’m not sure if any of the below constitutes spoilers but I’d just say it’s probably a movie you want to see with as little prior information as possible…
I had next to no urge to really see this when I first heard about it. It looked like a standard springtime thriller that was probably solid enough but not must-see, and let’s be honest the title doesn’t really capture the imagination. Then I saw it was directed by Duncan Jones. I loved his debut feature Moon and it’s grown on me even more with a couple of repeat views. Moon is such a unique movie I felt sure that even given a more mainstream sounding movie, there was no way Duncan Jones would let down the promise of that debut.
Source Code opens with sweeping shots of Chicago, minimalist credits pushed tightly to the edge of the screen, and a very Hitchcockian theme by composer Chris Bacon. It has to be said at this point in case my opening paragraph implied otherwise – I’m a huge fan of a solidly built thriller… it’s a genre I’ve often said it’s fairly impossible to screw up in as long as you plan correctly… this opening made me feel immediately at home, and I already knew I was in great hands with Jones.
The first 8 minutes of Source Code – the “first pass” of many on a single event in time, an explosion on a passenger train – reminded me strongly of Final Destination with a small dash of the TV show “Quantum Leap” (I think the casting of Scott Bakula in a small offscreen role here – something I didn’t notice the first time around – must be a cheeky admission of this comparison). Jake Gyllenhaal wakes disoriented on the ill-fated train – a girl is talking to him as if she knows him – and the next thing he knows, explosion. After some tantalisingly vague suggestion at where he “really” is, he wakes again, back in the same seat, 8 minutes before the explosion.
On the second “pass” the movie immediately brought Groundhog Day to mind. There’s a point in that movie when Bill Murray’s character realises that no matter what he does it’ll all reset the next morning and he does what most of us would do – whatever the hell he wants, to great comic effect. Gyllenhaal’s character here realises this fast – not because he knows what’s happening, but because he assumes it is a simulation (albeit one with a level of detail that fascinates him). This makes for a wonderfully believable variation on an inevitable cliché.
For the most part the movie ticks along for its (always welcome, especially in this genre) 90 minute running time with around 9 such passes on the same 8 minutes in time – a structure perfect for an increasingly ADD world reminiscent of Run Lola Run (I’m sure it’s been done in other movies too, I just can’t think of them right now). Where exposition is needed, it’s offset by a shortening of the 8 minutes – one of them blazes past our eyes in mere seconds, for example, giving us a much needed longer scene in the “present” with Vera Farmiga (in which we’re given a very “don’t worry your pretty little heads about that” exposition line, “Every second spent explaining things puts more civilians at risk,” but also to be fair a pretty decent sci-fi explanation of what’s going on that captures the imagination).
The first time I saw the movie there was only one thing that niggled me increasingly as Gyllenhaal comes closer to the truth and that was how he was able access info off the train – even if it was being extrapolated from this “short term memory pattern” the inventor thinks his Source Code project is, why would that necessarily be valid enough to track the real bomber? So, I sort of saw the ending coming – or, at least, hoped they’d make some move to address this “hole”.
Part of me thought the movie should’ve ended at the freeze frame the first time I saw it – much like the spot in Ai when David is trapped at the bottom of the ocean, it would be an endpoint that allowed us to decide more for ourselves where it really ended – but just as the last 20 minutes or so of Ai have grown on me immensely over the years, I like the suggestion of beyondness that occurs when the freeze frame unfreezes here. This and an emotional reconciliation with Gyllenhaal’s father take the movie in this final reel to a place even higher than its fine performances, snappy pace and intriguing concept already brought it. It says things are worth saving even if you’re not 100% sure how real or worthy they are – a message that kind of stands up more the crazier this crazy world gets.