Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, Michelle Monaghan, Jeffrey Wright
Review: 2 stars (of five)
Source Code‘s strengths are a good cast, led by Jake Gyllenhall and Vera Farmiga, and tight direction from Duncan Jones. Nonetheless, the film does not overcome the weaknesses of the script, by Ben Ripley (who has also given the world two straight-to-DVD Species sequels.
The basic premise is that a military officer keeps being sent back to relive the same eight minutes before a terrorist bomb destroyed a Chicago-bound commuter train. Each time, he gets closer to figuring out who did it, but it’s too late to prevent the actual blast. While the objective is to catch the terrorist before he makes a worse strike, our hero gets caught up in the fates of those onboard the doomed train, including a young woman he’s falling in love with in eight-minute increments. But since he can’t save her (or, for other reasons, himself), we’re left with a movie in which the happy ending it wants to give us is impossible. It’s no-win situation, and it’s not fun to watch the movie try to cheat its way out at the end.
The film is getting a lot of positive reviews, but nearly all of them come with caveats, in which the poor logic and preposterous “science” is dismissed in favor of the movie’s strengths. Reviewers do that all the time—I liked Salt despite it having a beginning that made no sense in retrospect and an ending that was stupid as a Tea Party book club. But I’m not giving this one a pass.
Even its greatest strength, the lead actors, is a weakness. Gyllenhaal can’t interact honestly with anyone he’s meeting on this train—he has a false identity, a desperate mission and eight minutes. When he’s out of the train reality, he’s in physical isolation, communicating with his military handlers by video screen. So on the one hand, the filmmakers are lucky to have such a skilled, nuanced actress as Vera Farmiga playing the desk jockey, because she layers a lot onto a bland and thankless role, but on the other hand, you really should give Vera Farmiga a better role than this. (Jeffrey Wright, by the way, is every bit as false as Farmiga is real.)
The film gives us brief exposition explaining the bizarre quantum mechanics and Matrix-esque concepts that make the story work, but even as we’re told how it works, it makes no sense. And we’re specifically told there is no happy ending, and the film opts to provide us one by simply rewriting the rules. Jake believes he can have a happy ending, so he gets one (sort of, if you overlook other basic story facts). That is all.
And lastly, the film employs graphic images of a soldier horribly mutilated in Afghanistan, and portrays a monstrously inhuman U.S. government. I’m all in favor of such things in a movie that really deals with the issues, but it feels gratuitous and exploitative in a cheaply conceived sci-fi movie that can’t even bother to make sense of its magic-technology plot.
In short, this was a bad idea for a movie, and some very good people made it work as well as it could. If you’re of a mind to have brisk images of jeopardy and emotion run in front of your face for 94 minutes, this will fit the bill. If you want anything more than that, you won’t get it here.