Hopscotch Films were kind enough to send me a double pass for a pre-screening of the new sci-fi thriller Source Code. So I hooked up a good mate and we went along last night. Source Code opens with Jake Gyllenhaal snapping awake in a train carriage, clearly unaware of where he is and what’s happening. The girl opposite seems to know him well and he’s the only one confused by the situation. After a few minutes of running around the train in a state of anxiety, a massive explosion rips through everything, killing everybody. Pretty powerful opening. Gyllenhaal awakens in a pod and we discover that he’s Captain Colter Stevens, a military helicopter pilot, whose last memory is flying in Afghanistan. He’s told through a screen to go back and find the bomber. He fails again and is blown up again. So they tell him he’s wasting time and has to find the bomb, the bomber, or something they can use. They send him back again. That’s right – it’s Groundhog Day On A Train, with extra explosions.
But it’s way better than that.
I’m going to review this film with as little spoilerage as possible, but it’s one of those films that is hard to explain without some exposition. To be honest, if I wanted to give nothing away, that first paragraph would be all I could post! I’ll describe the overall premise very briefly here and then go on to a review after the next picture. I really won’t give too much away anywhere here, but if you want to know nothing about this film, skip to the other side of the next image.
The basic premise is this: When someone dies their brain retains a latent glow of information, like a light bulb filament after you turn it off. That “glow” lasts for eight minutes. A certain compatible brain type, with the help of Dr Rutledge’s incredible science, employing quantum mechanics and some stuff or something and a clever machine, allows this military team to send a person back into the source code – essentially a program generated by the latent brain image of the dead. But every time a person goes back, they only have that eight minute window to work in.
Clear? No, not really. Turns out that Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Captain Colter Stevens, is an air force captain and he’s in the machine, being sent back into the source code memory of a victim of a terrorist attack. A train was blown up on its way to Chicago and more attacks are imminent. If Stevens and the team can go back into the source code often enough for him to find the bomber and/or any information about the bomb, the military could conceiveably prevent the next attacks by catching the people responsible. They can’t do anything about what has already happened, because it’s just a program, just Source Code, but they can learn things to act on future attacks.
Source Code is a slick, classy movie. It’s directed by Duncan Jones, the man who brought us Moon, so you know it’s in good hands, and written by Ben Ripley. The performances are all excellent, particularly Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, who plays Christina Warren, and Vera Farmiga, who plays Colleen Goodwin. I thought Goodwin was a particularly powerful character.
The science in this sci-fi thriller is very much on the lite side. If you read the paragraphs above you’ll realise that it’s not clearly defined. I wasn’t vague about it because I wasn’t paying attention. I was vague because the film is vague on the science. Something about quantumm mechanics, a clever kind of machine thing and a smarmy, self-important doctor. But the science isn’t really the relevant part. If you want that properly explained, you’ll be diappointed. If you have a solid grasp on quantum mechanics and the like, you’ll probably cringe at the liberties this film takes with those ideas. But I didn’t let that bother me. It’s a strong action thriller and should be enjoyed as such. The premise and development of that idea are really well done and the film is powerful for its focus on subjects like fate, duty and the meaning of life.
This film is in a similar vein to Inception and I’m really pleased to see these films being made. There’s a distinct return, most evident in Source Code and Inception recently, to intelligent, challenging storytelling. In Source Code they play with time (but it’s not really time travel) and the whole plot plays with your mind as you try to unravel it along with the characters. I did see most of the little twists coming and I imagine most people with even a simple familiarity with sci-fi would anticipate them too. But none of them were forced and they all worked well.
Immediately on leaving the theatre my friend and I began chattering in earnest about the ending and how it happened. The film made us think while we watched and kept us thinking. We figured out a timeline that seemed contradictory but actually isn’t and is really very clever (quantum mechanic liberties aside). Source Code is a mind-bender. It’ll keep people interested long after the film is finished and won’t just leave people with the old adage, “Well, it looked good. Amazing effects!” Sure, the effects were really good and very convincing, but you know what? They were only used to advance the story. Imagine that! There was me thinking Hollywood had forgotten about that.
The film takes its ideas from a number of sources. I mentioned earlier that it has a distinct Groundhog Day feel to it. It also has clear influence from a number of other sources, including most notably the premise of Quantum Leap. As an aside, there’s a clever Scott Bakula cameo (he played the main character in Quantum Leap). Don’t cheat, but I bet you a hundred bucks* you don’t spot his cameo appearance. Watch the credits afterwards to get the answer.
* Not a real bet. I don’t have a hundred bucks!
This is a film that’s well worth your time and money. It’s clever, brilliantly shot and constructed, neatly avoiding a lot of potential paradoxes even if it is light on the science, and exciting from start to finish. It grips just as a thriller should and will challenge your thinking all the way through. As a last note, when you do watch this film, spare a thought for poor old Sean Fentress. When you’ve seen the film, take a minute to think about that and you’ll see what I mean.
Have you seen it? What did you think? Did the potential problems with the science bother you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
(NB: Source Code opens nationally (Australia) on 5th May 2011)