Few directors really hit the ground running right off the bat, and often times take several films to really develop a cohesive style and vision. So when one arrives with a tight, well-paced, memorable debut, I tend to take note of them. Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) is one of those people, whose little-seen but much-praised science-fiction film “Moon” turned a lot of heads in 2009.
With the new film “Source Code” Jones is operating within the Hollywood studio system, with big-name actors and a moderately high budget. However, refreshingly, Jones is still working with an original concept: The government is testing out a program in which a person is inserted into the last 8 minutes of a deceased’s life.
After a train is bombed en route to Chicago, they decide to test out a subject. That subject is Army pilot Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s being inserted into the body of a passenger aboard that train. The hope is that he can find the bomb and identify the bomber, to prevent a second attack that is to be carried out later that day.
Stevens relives the memory repeatedly, using trial-and-error to identify who exactly is responsible. Problem is though, the clock is quickly ticking before the bomber carries out his next target.
“Source Code”s concept is both the best thing and the crutch of it: I say the best because it’s innovative, intriguing, and has lots of potential for exploration. It’s also the crutch because first-time scribe Ben Ripley doesn’t quite know how to properly capitalize on that concept. He builds an exciting scenario, he just can’t manage to maintain much tension or escalation. Basically, the movie isn’t quite as exciting or dynamic as it should be.
The pacing starts tense but then oddly enough experiences a slow, sloppy second act. There’s odd attempts at humor, random montages…it just hinders the film at a time where it really needed momentum. Also, the very end of the film feels tacked-on, and tone-wise really doesn’t gel with the remainder of the film.
The lead, Jake Gyllenhaal, however, is as excellent and convincing as always. No matter the quality of his projects, from a masterpiece like “Brokeback Mountain” or a dreary misfire like “Prince of Persia”, he’s always brought a degree, however small, of likability and depth. This is no different.
The supporting cast is unusually strong for a science fiction film: Jeffrey Wright and Vera Farmiga as the people running the program are very convincing, and Michelle Monaghan is solid as a female passenger that Gyllenhaal takes a liking to with over the course of the film.
And although I’ve complained that “Source Code” drags a bit at times, there are some genuinely thrilling moments. In the last third of the film save for the ending, it achieves a certain energy and excitement that felt missing from what proceeded it.
It’s odd that “Source Code” missed its mark as a thriller, but ends up succeeding in one regard I wouldn’t expect: The human drama. The film actually develops Gyllenhaal’s character a good deal, but keeps a couple surprises until the very end. For most of the film, I didn’t care so much about finding the bomb as I wanted to learn more about the main character.
“Source Code” wants to you think, and even if for me it didn’t succeed I am in no way going to take that away from it. It’s mostly compelling stuff that’s just a little too jagged and uneven to be anything more than solid. C+