© 2011 Ray Wong
In many ways, science fiction-thriller Source Code can be described as Quantum Leap meets Groundhog Day meets Agatha Christie mystery. What surprises me is its strong emotional core.
Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up and discovers he's on a commuter train heading for Chicago. The last thing he remembers is that he was on a combat mission in Afghanistan. More confusing to him is that he's in the body of a school teacher named Sean Frentress, and he's traveling with a fellow teacher Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Just when Stevens tries to figure out what is going on, there's an explosion on the train and instantly kills him…
Or so he thought. Instead, he finds himself trapped in a capsule, still in his military uniforms. Through the video communication, he learns from military officer Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) that he's part of mission named the Source Code. That morning, a terrorist attack on a Chicago-bound train killed all the passengers onboard, including Sean and Christina. Through the quantum physics work of Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), Stevens' mind is able to take over Sean's residual brain signature and relive the last eight minutes of his life. Stevens' mission is to find the bomber, so they can avert another attack that may destroy Chicago and kill over two million people.
What Stevens discovers, however, is that every time he returns to that eight minutes of Sean's life, something is different. He's able to change the events and the outcomes. He realizes he has a chance to save Christina's life. However, Dr. Rutledge tells him it's useless, since what Stevens' experiences are just the alternate realities made possible by the Source Code, and those will vanish when those eight minutes end. There's no way to save Christina because she's already dead. However, Stevens thinks they're wrong, and there's no reason why he can't complete his mission and save everyone at the same time.
Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs) is excellent in the role of the confused soldier who doesn't even know why he's on this particular mission or what he's supposed to do. Gyllenhaal manages to show a good range of emotions, from confused, helpless and frustrated to determined, considerate and humorous. His rounded performance helps bring the emotional core to the front.
It's also good to see two strong female roles in a male-dominated thriller. Michelle Monaghan (Due Date) plays the beautiful and kind would-be love interest. Granted, her role is rather minor and supportive -- she doesn't have much to do with the plot, except to serve as Captain Stevens' motivation. But she does it so well and we understand why Stevens has such an urge to save Christina's life. Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) has a more substantial role as Goodwin. While we don't know much about the character, Farmiga is able to bring depth to the role, especially through her interaction with Gyllenhaal. Interestingly, she and Gyllenhaal never have any actual scenes together.
Jeffrey Wright (Quantum of Solace) plays the scientist with a mix of intelligence, authority and indifference. He's not the bad guy, per se, but he's also not warm and fuzzy. He's all business and rather cold toward Stevens. Michael Arden (Bride Wars), despite his baby face, plays the villain with calculated pathos and menace. He's able to give a two-dimensional, underdeveloped villain some depth. Cas Anvar (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) is interesting while playing a Middle-Eastern suspect.
Written by Ben Ripley (The Watch), the screenplay is a mix of mystery, suspense, thriller and high-concept science fiction. He's able to borrow different ideas and mix them up and make them his own. The premise sounds like an updated version of Quantum Leap, where the main character assumes the identity of his subject. But Ripley puts a twist to it, adding the Groundhog Day ingredients. In this version, the hero can only relive the last eight minutes of his subject's life, and he can't really change the outcome, since he is, in essence, time-traveling. So it's really just information gathering, but that doesn't stop the hero for trying to do the right thing.
While the mystery is somewhat elementary (I figured out "whodunit" within the first few scenes), the core of the story isn't the mystery of the terrorist attack, but what the hero does with that mystery and information. There's a surprisingly strong emotional aspect of the story that is rare in the genre. There are also multiple threads of suspense: Not only does Captain Stevens need to find the bomber, he also needs to find out what happened to him, and why he was chosen for this mission (without his consent, literally). Mr. Ripley is able to reveal the secrets slowly with a tight plot. While the revelations are not specially shocking, it packs a strong emotional punch. We can't help but root for the hero and believes that he's right, and everyone else is wrong.
Of course, this story has its share of cliches that are typical of the genre: the misdirection, the "multiple suspects" trope, the love connection, the unsympathetic authority, the unlikely alliance, and a resilient hero. But the filmmakers have done a great job finding the right balance and making something potentially trite and contrived fresh again. However, the ending is somewhat convoluted, one of those science-fiction mumble-jumble that requires significant suspension of disbelief. Needless to day, the ending also sets up potential sequels and future TV series. Nothing wrong with that, just rather heavy-handed.
Duncan Jones' (Moon) direction is taut and suspenseful. The cinematography is beautiful and the action sequences are well choreographed. The skillful direction adds to the production and keep everything tight and clipping along at a great pace. Not too rushed or slow.
After being disappointed by the genre lately, I'm pleasantly surprised by Source Code. Granted, I still don't know what the title means; it is a vague computer term that has not much to do with the premise. But as an action-thriller, I find it highly enjoyable, relatively free of plot holes, with a strong emotional core that is not too sappy. It's a good source for a satisfying evening at the theater.
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden, Cas Anvar
Director: Duncan Jones
Writer: Ben Ripley
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence including disturbing images, and for language.
Running Time: 93 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.8 out of 10