Over the past three decades or so, since the release of Star Wars, science fiction has become more and more mainstream. However, over those three decades science fiction has lost some of its edge. Instead of getting films and books that delve deeper into science we get fluff pieces dumbed down for the masses. Sure films like Battle: Los Angeles are fun, if somewhat cliché, but they also do not push the boundaries of what science fiction can or should be.
However over the course of the last year, science fiction fans have been treated to some of the best genre films in recent memory. Films like Inception and the Adjustment Bureau prove that there is still room for smart sci-fi. Source Code, directed by Duncan Jones (Moon), is a film that plays in this court, bringing thought-provoking concepts to center stage while still managing to appeal to a wider audience.
The premise of Source Code is this, a terrorist attack on a commuter train in Chicago is just the start of a bigger terror plot and helicopter pilot, Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), is tasked with using a top-secret military program, known as the source code, to go back in time and find the person responsible for the attack. The source code however is restricted to only being able to go back to the last eight minutes of someone’s life, in this case a teacher who was killed on the train during the explosion.
Stevens’ mission is on a timer as he needs to discover what happened on the train so as to prevent a second attack in the real world. Of course things are not as cut and dry as they seem though. Source Code presents a few very good twists and the lines of reality become blurred for Stevens as he begins to care deeply for his train companion in the source code, Christina (Michelle Monaghan).
Aside from using pseudo-time travel as a basis for the film, Source Code also deals with the heady concepts of quantum mechanics, specifically parallel universes/realities. It also poses some strong ethical questions with regards to racial profiling as well as service to your country. To be honest I haven’t left a theater with so many thoughts bouncing around my head since Inception and that is a good thing. But while the premise is entertaining on all fronts, Source Code is a success because of Gyllenhaal’s performance and Jones’ direction.
Gyllenhaal carries the film on his back. His character requires a certain amount of empathy from the audience and he nails it. I felt for the plight Stevens was in and I wanted him to succeed, not because it would prevent the second terrorist attack and save the day but because it would free him of the pain he is forced to continuously endure by his superiors (played by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright).
Jones on the other hand directs the film with a masterful hand. The pacing is fantastic and there is a noticeable amount of tension in the film. Jones never lets the film get too ahead of itself though, he has smartly interspersed some comedy into the film and the humor helps to calm the audience and allow them to pay more attention to the details; it is the attention to details that makes Source Code so special. Maybe you do not see everything the first time around but all the clues are there.
As much fun as I had with the film though, there is one glaring issue which holds the film back. That of course is the ending. Personally I enjoyed the direction the film takes and the questions that arise from it but that is on the conceptual side of things. My problem arises from the storytelling of the ending, specifically that the ending for Stevens and Christina is extremely predictable and I had it pegged even before walking into the theater. For a film that does so many things exceptionally well, it is rather disappointing that the ending is so cliché.
A lot of the film industry today is lacking originality and a lot of that blame can be pinned directly on the film-goers. We keep awarding mediocre film with more and more money while other, more challenging films, get passed by for no other reason than we can not be bothered by them. Fortunately there some young filmmakers out there that still have the spirit that brought us films like Logan’s Run, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Films that can make you think, while also being entertaining. Duncan Jones is one of these guys. He should be on all science fiction fans watch lists because he is the real deal.
4 out of 5.