SOURCE CODE B
USA France (93 mi) 2011 d: Duncan Jones
“The source code is a gift. Don't squander it by thinking.”
—Dr. Walter Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright)
—Dr. Walter Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright)
An efficiently directed film about disorientation, one that keeps the characters in the film as well as the audience in the dark for as long as possible before small bits and pieces of well placed reality creep in, like clues in the dark. Directed by Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s son, whose previous sci-fi film MOON (2009) lingered in theaters well beyond the entire summer. This is something of a mind-bender as well, like an expanded version of a Twilight Zone episode where a character has to re-live the exact same experience that leads up to the precise moment of their death, only for it to happen again and again. The twist here is that the subject, Jake Gyllenhaall as Captain Colter Stevens, is being programmed by some high risk military experiment where his brain has somehow been implanted into another man’s body, but only for the last 8 minutes of his life, where his mission is to find an explosive device on a fast moving commuter train to downtown Chicago within 8 minutes of detonation when all the passengers die. What’s especially amusing is that the subject knows no more about this experiment than the audience does, so we learn as he does, and in this case, the Captain is a quick learner, as he’s a well-trained helicopter pilot used to carrying out combat missions in Afghanistan. The set up always begins as he’s sitting on the train across from an especially attractive woman, Michelle Monaghan as Christine, who engages him in the same conversation. The intrigue is he is sent on multiple missions, each time his only means of contact afterwards is with the face of Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) projected on a computer screen, who asks him to remember pertinent details, like where is the bomb, who is the bomber, before sending him back in again to figure it all out in another 8 minutes before the train explodes.
Despite the déjà vu repetition, each sequence is slightly altered based on his knowledge learned in the previous incident, but it’s always the same faces, the same seating arrangement, and the same activity on the train except for his actions and words which are subject to his own instincts. Stevens easily holds the audience’s rapt attention as he’s a study in intensity and military precision, but his instincts are amazingly human, where he wants to speak to his father on the phone, and he asks about the men on his last combat mission, where his curiosity is exactly what the audience relates to, but Goodwin’s mission instructions continually remind him that his personal inquiries are unnecessary, as he’s wasting time, because this one terrorist act is just the first of several in succession, where the military is pinning their hopes that if they can catch the first guy, the world will be spared the subsequent terror. This extra pressure of fate only adds to the tension Stevens is facing, as he’s always under the clock, eventually becoming more and more frustrated with the same inevitable outcome. The other is his interest in Christine, who is positively aglow with an intoxicating charm, where the idea of losing her each time just as he is initially introduced to her is rattling his desperate-minded soul, growing ever more weary at the mounting losses of lives that he can’t seem to be able to save, where everyone at some point comes under suspicion, yet all but one remain cloaked in innocence.
The interplay between Gyllenhaal and Monaghan seals the deal, as the sincerity of their flirtatious romanticism is reminiscent of the opening moments in Powell and Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946), where David Niven is a British WWII air force pilot whose plane has been hit, who deliriously utters what he thinks are his last words to an American WAC air traffic controller, Kim Hunter, instantly declaring his love before he leaps without a parachute to certain death. There are moments of poignancy in this film that seem to come out of nowhere, especially in an explosives film, but Gyllenhaal’s performance generates plenty of hard earned sympathy, as he’s genuinely a man on a mission, apparently stuck alone inside a time traveling capsule of some kind, where his inability to escape his hellish fate feels like Sartre’s No Exit, a punishing world where man’s existence is doomed, like being locked in a room together for eternity with no escape. But Stevens is certain he holds the key to a way out, even as his superiors on the outside keep reminding him of the limits of his mission, urging him not to reach too far, not to expect too much, that his role is like an apparition, where the source code is like a shadow life that allows scientists to re-enter existence before it dies, where only his ingenuity, if he sticks to the mission at hand, can possibly save future lives. Of course, in heroic fashion, he can’t expect to save his own, as his fate is sealed, which is why he was chosen for such a delicate mission. He is only living on borrowed time, never exceeding 8 minutes, like reliving the same dream, always with the same outcome, hoping to spare others from ever having to endure the same experience. This film is smart, well acted, tautly suspenseful and surprisingly inventive, with a kind of sci-fi twist that keeps the action moving, with a lightness of touch that actually engages the audience.