A little past the halfway point of Source Code, around the fifth or sixth time our hero Colter (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been thrown back into the final 8 minutes of a terrorism victim’s life, I began to get a slightly unfortunate feeling. It’s a feeling I get a lot at genre films like this, where the film has a pretty brilliant idea that could go down plenty of exciting paths, but it ultimately picks a path that, while not bad, is less adventurous and not as enthralling as its early journey had promised.
It is the second feature from Duncan Jones, after his 2009 debut Moon, a film that shares just enough resemblance with this effort to indicate, not self-plagiarism, but an auteur’s interest in very specific ideas and stories. Both films center on protagonists that we are barely introduced to, and as both films progress we come to learn they don’t know much about themselves either (and not in some coming-of-age self-discovery way); powerful outside forces are also heavily involved in the fabrication of this life. Though I didn’t love Moon as much as many people I know, I prefer the execution of that film’s sci-fi premise to this, mostly because it was working on a much smaller scale – here Jones has a bigger canvas, but he doesn’t do the best job of filling it out.
The film’s opening sequence is perhaps the best fulfillment of this story’s potential. Though starting a story with a confused, blank-memory protagonist has been done many times before, Ben Ripley’s screenplay and Jones’ direction hit all the right beats. It’s nothing revolutionary or mind-blowing, but it puts us right into Colter’s shoes as he tries to figure out bit by bit why he’s on a Chicago-bound train in another man’s body just before it gets blown to smithereens. It also helps to have the right actor in the role, and though he continues to be more of a star by name recognition than actual audience appeal, Gyllenhaal is a likeable and talented leading man, and brings the needed weight and charisma to guide us through what is going to be a very confusing journey.
After this sequence (and another properly disorienting sequence introducing us to the second reality of the film), we get the necessary exposition from Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright, as a sympathetic military officer and a stern scientist, respectively. These two talented actors do about as much as they can with these roles, which are not particularly rewarding (especially Wright, playing a stereotypically empathy-free scientist), though Farmiga gives her character enough humanity to let you roll with some far-fetched decisions near the end.
They explain just enough to keep the audience going right into Colter’s next reliving of the attack (called the Source Code, hence the title), and then let a little more information out following the next few relivings. Here the film begins to show that it’s less about finding the bomber and more about finding out what’s going on with our hero. This development is more hit than miss, but it comes close. By devoting so much time to Colter’s personal journey through entering the Source Code, I feel like the film skimps on a couple of possible areas of interest, especially just how traumatizing it must become to relive, over and over, death by bombing. One would imagine that by the third or fourth time he would have serious problems with KNOWING that the bomb is coming, and intense fear over re-entering and facing the possibility of blowing up once more.
The film instead focuses on the emotional connection that develops between Colter and Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), a friend of the man he has inhabited. As with Farmiga and Wright’s characters, there isn’t much to the role, but Monaghan and Gyllenhaal develop enough chemistry together that you’re willing to go with the idea that Colter would become motivated less to stop the bomber and more to save her. The film also opts for a half-baked daddy-issue subplot that’s supposed to be significant to our protagonist, but is barely worth mentioning here.
As for that bomber plot, the film’s way of dealing with it leaves a lot to be desired. The pacing is incredibly inconsistent, as we seem to be initially following a gradual piece-by-piece discovery of who the bomber might be through each re-entrance into the Source Code, before the focus turns to Colter. Then in the final section, when Colter is forced to figure out the mystery, the plot is wrapped up too quickly and conveniently. The bomber’s identity may not be the main point by now, but it’s still a major one, and the reveal is mishandled, as is the actual character. (I’m pretty sure Ripley just copy/pasted his obligatory “THIS IS MY MOTIVATION” monologue from pieces of three or four other terrorist monologues.)
With that being said, this offhand approach to the terrorist plot makes for an unusual (by Hollywood standards) but satisfactory ending. Whereas most genre films, even the smaller, more character-focused ones, feel obligated to throw in an action-heavy conclusion, Jones and Ripley opt for a quieter, more gradual winding down that respects the characters we’ve come to know and watched go through hell for the last 80 minutes. It’s a respectful ending, making me feel that even though the filmmakers didn’t meet my personal expectations of this plot, they did pretty darn well with the path they started down.