Cracking the ‘Code’

Photo Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Do you ever think about what would happen if you did one thing differently in your life? If so, have you considered the impact such a choice would have? If you answered in the affirmative to both questions, then look no further than “Source Code,” a science-fiction mystery thriller that may just have the answer for you.

Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens on a commuter train en route to Chicago with a woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan). What’s confusing to him is that the last thing he remembers was flying a helicopter in Afghanistan. Upon exploring the train, he discovers that he is in the body of a Sean Fentress. Minutes later, the train explodes, killing everyone onboard.

However, Stevens is not dead. He gains consciousness to find himself in a capsule, where he is addressed via computer monitors by Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). She informs him that he has been placed in a program known as Source Code, which enables him to take over the body and mind of Sean in the final eight minutes of his life.

He gradually understands that the train was destroyed by a bomb, and that another one — this time nuclear — will soon be detonated in the city, potentially killing millions. He is ordered to go back to the train, where he can identify who the bomber is. As he returns again and again to those fateful eight minutes, Stevens frantically gathers clues that can help him prevent the larger attack from occurring in reality.

You may imagine that one potential problem that “Source Code” faces in its story is repetition. After all, as Stevens relives those eight minutes multiple times, chances are, it may become tiring. Thankfully, director Duncan Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley introduce unexpected twists and turns and vary character actions and reactions to not only explore the endless possibilities of alternative universes, but also ensure that we maintain our high level of curiosity and tension every time.

In almost every science-fiction film, there is an imagined innovation in science or technology whose sole purpose is to advance the plot of the story. In other words, it is nothing more than a mere plot device. Thus, the innovation in mind shouldn’t call too much attention to itself. This is achieved by veering the audience’s concern instead to the story’s intensity or their emotional investment in the characters.

In this film’s case, this is none other than the Source Code itself. Nevertheless, since it is utilized many times, we are inevitably forced to wonder about this simulation program and subsequently crave more information about it. It doesn’t exactly help when Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), Source Code’s creator, briefly explains to Stevens how it works, as doing so may lead to the discovery of certain plot holes.

After its rather startling opening, the film sets off at a good, smooth and suspenseful pace for about 30 minutes or so. However, a twist is revealed just when we are getting a grasp of how Source Code generally works, and suddenly the film is propelled into the preposterous. The film never gets boring after this point, but issues with Ripley’s screenplay begin to arise.

One such issue is the film’s underwhelming conclusions and results. While the buildup is excellent, the conclusions themselves are disappointing, arrive way too early and lack the dramatic and emotional punch they should have had. When Stevens realizes who the bomber is and learns what his intentions are, you can’t help but think, “That’s it?”

Another is the surprisingly shallow character development. Whatever backgrounds are divulged about the characters seem tacked on and feel more like attempts to get us more emotionally involved with them. For example, when Stevens eventually develops feelings for Christina and decides that he wants to save her, it’s difficult for us to accept his feelings because not only do we not know enough about these two, the very nature of their relationship is quite unconvincing.

“Source Code” is, without a doubt, Jake Gyllenhaal’s film. Not only does he play the main protagonist, he also plays the one character who experiences and feels the same things that we do — he and the audience are in sync with one another. Although we only catch glimpses of his charisma, his approach to the role is solid and more importantly, stable.

Despite their characters’ limitations, the rest of the cast manage to somehow stand out. Monaghan is delightful as the clueless Christina, who is always puzzled by her compatriot’s uncharacteristic actions and personality. Farmiga shows that Goodwin has more heart than her reserved appearance lets on, and Wright successfully communicates Rutledge’s superiority above others in both rank and intelligence.

Composer Chris P. Bacon’s score is instantly noticeable and commendable. It is on sync with the events and feelings present on screen, and often reflects the liveliness and mystery felt when listening to James Newton Howard’s work in “The Fugitive.”

For a film that cost over $25 million more than Jones’ previous feature “Moon,” you would expect the visuals to be exceptional. Here, it’s blatantly obvious that the explosions are complete CGI, and you’ll be shocked at how abominable they are. You would expect such terrible visuals to only be seen in SyFy original movies.

“Source Code” is not as terrific as it could have been, but that definitely doesn’t warrant a dismissal of the film. Regardless of the story’s problems with its characters and plot, it is still an energetic, thought-provoking mind exercise.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars