SXSW '11 Review: Source Code

· Joanthan Poritsky

One of my best worst viewing experiences in recent years was when I saw Vantage Point at about 10am at an Upper East Side multiplex. Every time the story re-unfolded, the audience let loose a tortured groan. That film was terrible but the lesson was clear: telling the same story over and over again is not for the faint of heart; this is why Akira Kurosawa gets to be called a master for making Rashomon, or Harold Ramis for Groundhog Day.

Duncan Jones is no Kurosawa (or Ramis, for that matter), but his newest film, Source Code, is an enjoyable enough sci-fi thriller about a man reliving the same eight minutes over and over in order to solve a crime. Jake Gyllenhaal fills the role of Colter Stevens, a marine who wakes up strapped into a chair after experiencing a vivid simulation on a train. With only a female officer on a television screen to guide him (played by Vera Farmiga), he is both trying to solve the mystery of his own whereabouts as well as discover who bombed a Chicago-bound train that morning.

Using an experimental program called, unsurprisingly (and lamely, if you ask me), Source Code, military scientists have found a way to thread Stevens’s DNA with that of one of the victims of the attack. Jeffrey Wright plays the token holier-than-though-military-slash-mad-scientist who exposits the science behind Source Code. Without giving much away, the brain is capable of retaining roughly eight minutes worth of memory from the moments just before death. By mapping those 8 minutes onto Stevens’s brain, he can relive the experience of being on the train, thus being able to find the bomber.

Jones gives us a lot to swallow at once, and there is no question that his first priority was building a thoroughly fleshed out character for Gyllenhaal to settle into. He is at once a roughneck on a tear and a softie looking for love. It’s a lot of humanity for a man who can break another’s jaw in a single punch.

Unfortunately, Source Code’s weakest thread is as a thriller. The train sequences are built to draw the audience in and establish a familiarity with the space, but the premise is fodder for a brilliant whodunnit. So much time is spent trying to explain away Stevens’s situation that the bomb plot plays out a little too mathematically. This film is begging for more action and less explanation. To be fair, however, the bomb plot is a MacGuffin.

I will say that by the end of the film I was completely sold on the idea of the Source Code program. The concept has the makings of a nice little franchise, if not of movies than certainly of comic books. That, it must be said, is no small feat. Perhaps I’m clouded by the fact that Source Code is basically a mash-up of Unstoppable and Deja-Vu, but part of me wishes Duncan Jones had taken some action lessons from Tony Scott. The emotional arc is finely tuned, but as an action film overall it falls short of thrilling.