Waking on a commuter train, army pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) discovers that he’s in someone else’s body. When the train explodes, Colter finds out he’s the test subject for advanced technology which allows him to exist within the last eight minute’s of a passenger’s life. Though instructed to quickly find those responsible as a larger attack looms, he realises something isn’t right whilst re-living those eight minutes over and over…
Ironically, we’ve seen movies and shows about time-hopping plenty of times before. For the most part, they remain (wait for it) timeless, even though the concept has been tweaked and re-jigged more often than David Bowie’s wardrobe.
As such, it’s a delight to report that in only his second film (!), David’s son Duncan Jones has used the fresh (ish) premise to fashion a smart, exciting and deeply involving thriller. Sure, there’s elements of past classics here, but Jones combines them to fashion something all his own. It’s familiar, yet original. Classic but new. Or, as Jake Gyllenhaal’s Colter reasons about his experience; “it’s the same dream, but it’s different”.
Re-doing the same time-period over and over again will earn obvious comparisons to Groundhog Day. Having our hero in someone else’s body trying to right a wrong, will inevitably remind you of Quantum Leap. And, as a man in the past unsure if he can alter events, Life On Mars also comes to mind. But yet as stated, Source Code is very much its own movie. Its own experience. You can see a clear Hitchcock influence too (check out those opening titles), yet Jones’ second movie boasts enough individuality to ensure he’s already a filmmaker to watch for.
On paper, this is a very different proposition to his moody, lunar debut Moon. However, when you stop to think about it, here we’ve also got an isolated loner who tries to wrestle his destiny away from ‘the man’, whilst themes of existence, identity and reality hum away at your cerebral gland. No doubt, Source Code is a more mainstream affair, but DJ’s seamless transition from indie-land to the big stage is far from brainless or action-orientated. A mind-bender with a few nicely-telegraphed twists and turns, it’s not a film built around CG set-pieces (though the jump-and-roll from the train is superbly achieved), but sophisticated ideas and people.
Worried that it doesn’t sound actiony enough? Well you shouldn’t be, as it’s consistently thrilling whilst Ben Ripley’s layered screenplay provides a duel focus. On the surface, there’s the more straightforward plot where our Colter hunts for clues on the train to identify the bomber and stop future tragedies. This is what we saw in the trailer. Underneath however, there’s the more complex thread, where our time-leaper begins to question how he got there (remembering only a plane crash) and where there really is (in between 8-min train visits he awakes in a dark chamber). His handlers constantly reinforce that he’s only living out a small portion of a dead man’s recorded memory of those events (the titular source code) and therefore totally unable to alter events – but he isn’t so sure…
So in short, there’s lots to think about for those who like to flex their craniums, and a decent whodunit thriller for those who don’t. Don’t worry, it’s really not as confusing as you’re probably imagining, providing you pay suitable attention. And, although re-visiting the same time period over again could feel repetitive in lesser hands, Jones impressively manages to side-step this potential banana skin with intricate story construction. Multiple viewings aren’t necessary to ‘get’ what’s going on (just use your noodle), but they’ll probably reveal lots you missed first time out.
But of course, none of this would work without a leading man to anchor it – and Jake is certainly up to the task. Even when we’re not 100% sure what is going on or where the movie is headed, we believe in Gyllenhaal, and therefor buy into Source Code. Like Quantum Leap‘s Sam Beckett or Life On Mars‘ Sam Tyler, he’s both hugely sympathetic and crucially relatable, while showcasing such good looks that he makes a button-down denim shirt and blazer cool. The support is impressive too (Michelle Monaghan achieves a character arc even though restricted to the same eight minutes, Vera Farmiga shows layers despite mostly doing close-ups), but this is a one-man show. As for the guest voice cameo? Just perfect.
Indie Moon was very good, but Duncan Jones’ jump to the big league is even better. This is one you’ll want to re-live over and over.