Director Duncan Jones was clearly well served by having been raised by rock legend David Bowie. That said, the man needs dearly to put behind him his obsession with “Space Oddity.”
The structural and thematic similarities shared by “Moon,” the 2009 space thriller starring Sam Rockwell which is Jones’ fantastic debut film, and “Source Code,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal, are too numerous to recount. Both center on men living isolated in tin cans in a remote location an effort to benefit humanity at large, a condition that slowly eats away at their sense of reality.
“Heeeeeeeeeere am I sitting in a tin can…”
Gyllenhaal stars as Capt. Colter Stevens, a man who awakens to find himself inside the body of a schoolteacher, Sean Fentress, riding on a commuter train. Sitting across from him is a beautiful woman, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), whom he doesn’t recognize, but who clearly knows him. Less than eight minutes later, the train is torn apart by a fiery blast.
But Stevens survives, awaking this time strapped upside-down in a seat, staring at fellow soldier Carol Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) via a monitor. Goodwin tells him he’s part of a top secret program—Source Code—that allows him to repeatedly relive the last eight minutes of Fentress’ life until he can learn the identity of the bomber, who is planning to detonate a dirty bomb in downtown Chicago. If Stevens can find the bomber in time, he can help the Army prevent the second bomb from going off. “Source Code” is basically “Moon” disguised as “Groundhog Day” meets “Avatar”—or “Being John Malkovich,” if you prefer—with the fate of the world at stake.
The story leaves so many questions unanswered, like: Couldn’t they have given Stevens just a whiff of training? Isn’t Goodwin woefully unprepared, as well? Did it not occur to anyone that Stevens might ask WTF he was doing? And how come they keep telling Stevens the past can’t be changed, but then insist on him changing it? Any time you delve into time-travel scenarios, things need to be very clearly or very loosely defined—but "Source Code" cheats toward the middle to just confuse the issue.
Duncan makes great use of the limited space—essentially a commuter train--he gives himself, but it’s not quite enough. One of the lessons of “Groundhog Day” is that if you’re going to make your audience relive the same moments over and over, it needs to be a dynamic experience of discovery, something Duncan fails to do. Rather than revealing itself progressively, the film moves forward in fits and starts.
Gyllenhaal’s performance is great, particularity coming off a very different role in "Love and Other Drugs." He gives the film a little of everything: some action, some humor, some humanity… it’s a well-rounded turn. Monaghan reaffirms her status as an underused talent—she’s sexy, approachable, smart. She’s everything you’d want in a leading lady, but for some reason can’t get past second billing.
"Source Code" has a pair strong leads, an interesting--if flawed--premise and some tight action sequences, but it comes up short of being the truly great entertainment it strives to be.