Source Code: Quantum Leap Meets Groundhog Day

The latest film offering from the former Zowie Bowie is a complex sci-fi film that's smart, thrilling and sees Jake Gyllenhaal looking like a dog who’s just been shown a card trick. Inception has a lot to answer for…
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After his brilliantly inventive and low key sci-fi debut Moon, Duncan Jones was unsurprisingly given loads of money by Hollywood types to make his second feature. This is often both a blessing and a curse. On one hand the extra resources and critical acclaim allow a director greater freedom and inspire them to greater achievements. On the other, they wallow in indulgence and sink under the weight of their own pretensions (yes, Richard ‘Donnie Darko’ Kelly, I’m looking at you). Whilst the high-concept Source Code suffers from some predictable Hollywood clichés, Jones has managed to create a tightly plotted and intelligent movie that – should he manage to avoid the machinations of the studios – marks him out as one of the most interesting mainstream directors over the past few years.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a soldier who wakes up on a train talking to someone he’s never met before and inhabiting a body that isn’t his. As he tries to piece together his situation, he – and the rest of the passengers – are promptly blown up. Luckily for Stevens, he awakens in strange surroundings. Unluckily, it transpires that he is part of a mysterious government project. His job is to continually return to the train, reliving the same 8 minutes, and attempt to uncover the person behind the bombing. Each time he returns to the body of teacher Sean Fentress, Stevens finds out more about his fellow passengers – in particular the beautiful Christina, who sits opposite him – in a bid to stop a disaster in the future. But while he tries to save the world he also tries to discover more about his situation – just how did he end up being at the centre of the Source Code?

The film’s internal logic just about stands up to scrutiny, apart from one glaringly obvious mistake, NO ONE in the world uses Bing as a search engine.

For the first 20 minutes or so you’d be forgiven for thinking that the projectionist had messed up and accidentally shown a DVD of Quantum Leap or Groundhog Day. Yes, the script does contain a lot of elements familiar from countless genre films, so much so that avid fans will be ticking off the clichés as they happen. Yet there’s something comforting about the way film handles things. All the obvious questions (Why doesn’t he just stop the train? Or get all the passengers off as soon as possible?) are dealt with swiftly and satisfyingly and the film’s internal logic just about stands up to scrutiny (apart from one glaringly obvious mistake: NO ONE in the world uses Bing as a search engine unless Bill Gates is holding a gun to their heads).

Gyllenhaal does well in the lead, utilising his two facial expressions (‘smugly happy’ and ‘dog who’s just been shown a card trick’) to their maximum effect, and the supporting cast do their best in mostly anonymous roles.

Jones continues with the 70s aesthetic he used for Moon, but this is a much more slick and polished type of 70s cinema. Alongside the complex narrative, the minimal and claustrophobic sets make proceedings reminiscent of some of the great US conspiracy thrillers of the era. Add in the verdant sunshine of the California landscape contrasted with the dark caverns of government offices and you have film that strives for a vein of surreality that consistently tries to wrong-foot the audience. Whilst the love story between Stevens and Christina sometimes seems annoyingly pat, the ending (as long as you think about it very, very carefully) is brilliantly grim.

After the success of Inception everyone and their Uncle Charlie are making their genre films ‘complex’ and ‘deep’. This usually means sticking a paragraph from ‘A Brief History Of Time’ into a speech before carrying on with laser fights. But Source Code is genuinely compelling and – whilst not always successful – remains a fine example of an intelligent, modern sci-fi thriller.

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