Duncan Jones | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 12 / PG-13
The second directorial outing from BAFTA-winning Brit Duncan Jones (after Moon) is another sci-fi mystery, this time set in the present day. A terrorist blows up a commuter train entering Chicago; a new device called the ‘source code’ allows US helicopter pilot Colter Stevens to re-live the final eight minutes of one of the train’s passengers, in the hope of finding out who did it. But this isn’t time travel — he can’t affect the outcome — only hope to find the bomber and bring them to justice.
Naturally there’s more to it than that; you may have even read what in other review’s plot summaries, but I’m trying to keep it vague-ish here. Does Source Code benefit from being spoiler-free? No more than any other mystery-based film… which is to say “yes”, I suppose.
Having not seen Moon (still — bad me) I can’t compare, which is a shame because the heralding of Jones as a key new voice in film and/or SF film suggests that’s one of the best ways to approach his work. He’s clearly a good director, constructing a credible mid-scale thriller here (the same could be said about the work of screenwriter Ben Ripley, or the performances of any and all members of the cast) with a few flashier elements that stand out (in a good way), but I presume his previous effort showed more promise, because Source Code is hardly groundbreaking. It’s certainly a solid, dual-pronged, science-fiction mystery — dual-pronged because not only is Stevens working to find the bomber, but also fighting amnesia to discover what the source code is and how he wound up there — but not an especially deep or complex work. There’s nothing wrong with something being little more than an exciting, engrossing thriller, it’s just not revelatory.
Anyway, it’s in the latter of those two prongs that the film’s heart lies. Running under an hour and a half once you lose the credits, the bomber is uncovered about an hour in, which leaves the last 20 minutes or so to deal with what else Stevens has uncovered. The efficiency of storytelling is to the credit of both Jones and Ripley: rather than emphasise the Groundhog Day element of the plot, for instance by having Stevens making endless trips into the eight minutes and gradually uncover slivers of information, he finds the bomb on his second trip and makes significant headway with each recurring one. All sorts of parts of that could have been stretched out, easily pushing the film to two hours or beyond, but rather than padding we’re left with something that’s quite taut. For a thriller, that’s definitely a good thing.
The other side of the plot is not only where the heart is, but also where the real twists and mysteries lie — I guessed the bomber the first time I saw the character; even if you don’t, it ultimately matters little. Vital to the finale are the subplots like Stevens’ relationship with his father and his growing affection for the passenger his alter ego was travelling with — but who he can’t save, of course, because the source code isn’t time travel.
Spoilers follow in the rest of this review (bar the final paragraph), because I have to discuss the ending — because it’s where the film sadly begins to fall down for me. You see, the logic of the source code holds up most of the way through, and I can understand Stevens’ motivation for wanting to save the people in what is, really, little more than a simulation — he’s accepted he can’t really save them, but he wants to have the satisfaction of feeling he has before he dies. Nice enough. I can even accept the Spielbergian sentiment this ending arguably generates — that freeze-frame track down the train with all the laughing people, for instance. What doesn’t quite make sense is what follows.
The source code definitely isn’t time travel — Stevens saved Christina on an earlier pass, after which Goodwin confirmed she was dead, so he clearly isn’t changing the single timeline — so the next best theory is that he’s created parallel worlds, and it was in one of those he saved the day. Did he create a new parallel world every time he entered the source code, or only the last time? I’m not sure that’s relevant. This is, though: at the end, he seems to remain in Sean’s body. So if he’s in a parallel world, he’s just stolen another man’s life? And Stevens — at least, the Stevens of that reality — is still lying, mutilated, half dead, in some government research facility? Hardly a cheery resolution.
And I wouldn’t mind — it doesn’t have to be cheery — if it weren’t for the fact that none of this is alluded to. It’s just presented as wonderful. Stevens lives! With the girl he’s come to love (in an afternoon)! And Goodwin feels good because she saved the world! But how can we truly feel triumphant, which the film leads us to, if he’s just stolen a man’s life and the alternate him is still, to put it politely, screwed? Maybe this is somehow Jones’ aim — if you don’t think it over too much, you go away with a satisfying thriller that had a happy ending; if you do think about it, you realise this joyous result is going to fall apart around the time the end credits stop rolling. I think presuming the latter may be allowing a little too much though.
Still, problems aside, Source Code remains an exciting, taut, puzzling sci-fi thriller. On a train — there’s a whole long line of movies and connections to be explored there. Many reviews have noted the Hitchcock connection and I’m sure that’s an interesting route to look down, so maybe there is a bit more to Source Code after all… but even if there isn’t, it’s a fun ride.
Source Code is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.