Source Code – Dir: Duncan Jones; *ing: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
Say ‘Sci-fi’ out loud. Go on, say it. What kind of images come to mind? Lumbering robots? Men in black kabukimono-style overcoats moving in bullet-time? A monumental spaceship cruising the final frontier, with perhaps the name ‘Enterprise’ emblazoned on its derriere? If so, then you’re very with it as far as sci-fi filmmaking in the last decade or so is concerned. (If, on the other hand, you pictured a black monolith and a red electronic eye singing ‘Daisy Bell’ in a distorted voice, then congratulations, you are a certifiable film geek stuck in a time warp, so welcome to my world). The genre has remained amazingly popular in the nearly-four decades since Star Wars, even though, it must be admitted, the ‘science’ aspect of it has become, for the most part, increasingly preposterous, while the ‘fiction’ part of it has more often than not sacrificed minor elements like character development and involving plot at the altar of ‘more mind-numbing explosions and cheesy punchlines, please’. So Source Code comes as a shockingly pleasant surprise, for it is an anomaly in these Michael Bay times – a sci-fi film with heart, brain, and, umm, those round things you play tennis with.
So okay, the science part of it is still fairly ludicrous, but by not dwelling on it interminably in order to justify its premise, Source Code acquits itself on that count pretty neatly. Army captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) awakens on a Chicago commuter train with no memory of how he got there and with no idea who the pretty woman sitting across from him (Monaghan) and talking to him in a familiar manner is. His confusion is cemented further when he stumbles into the loo and finds a stranger staring back at him in the mirror. There’s barely time to consider that, though, as in the very next moment, the train explodes into a fireball. Cut to Stevens strapped down inside a capsule, again completely disoriented until he is reminded on a closed circuit screen by Officer Goodwin (Farmiga) that he has been assigned the task of reliving the last eight minutes of the life of one of the victims on the train, through the nascent and top-secret technology of source code, in order to find the bomb that blew up the train and also to identify the bomber who has vowed to do worse very soon. Since Stevens was unable to complete the mission on the first go, he must go back again. And again. And again, over and over, as he adapts and changes strategy each time, all the while letting the mystery woman get further and further under his skin, and gradually realizing the enormity, as well as the inherent tragedy of his situation; source code is not time travel, as its creator (Wright) informs Stevens, it’s time re-assignment, which means that even if Stevens prevents the train bomb from going off in the source code timeline, in the ‘actual’ world, that would have no effect and the train would still have exploded, killing all on board, just as in the original event.
Director Jones, who earlier made the similarly mind bending Moon, creates that rarest of creatures here, the intelligent actioner which also takes admirable pains to not let the human angle of the story fall by the wayside; in fact, if anything, the film is more invested in its characters than its plot’s potential for bombast. So it helps that its three leads are played by such extraordinary and likeable actors. Monaghan’s is a guileless, unpretentious presence, while Farmiga is the goddess of the close-up, not only for her luminous beauty but, far more importantly, for her complete command over the instrument that is her delicately expressive face. And Gyllenhaal is the perfect fit as Stevens: manic, edgy, and tough, yet also the vulnerable everyman – it’s a complicated role to carry, but the G man does it with aplomb. Together, the three, along with their director, weave a smart, classy thriller with a soul that’ll leave with more than a few chills.
So the next time someone says sci-fi, think source code.