SXSW FILM FESTIVAL
SXSW Review: Source Code Doesn't Quite Live Up to Jones' Potential
by Jeremy Kirk
March 12, 2011
After making the thought-provoking and minimalist yet ultra-fresh sci-fi Moon, director Duncan Jones (@ManMadeMoon) has done something few thought he would. He has directed Source Code, a dramatic story with a science fiction heart that makes one question where the young director's future is headed. It's not that Source Code is bad. It builds suspense around characters and presents a reasonably fresh concept. However, Jones already seems to be on sort of an auto-pilot here in the second feature of his still budding career. The film feels safe, commercial, and about as straight-forward and devoid of edge as one can get.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Colter Stevens, a soldier chosen for a top secret military project. Under the direction of a mission controller played by Vera Farmiga, Stevens' consciousness is transplanted into the body of a man on a train, a train that earlier that day was the target of a terrorist attack. His mission in the eight minutes he has inside this body is to uncover who bombed the train so that a future attack can be prevented.
The challenge may have been creating a timeline of only eight minute, having those moments play out over and over again, and keep them from ever growing tedious. In that, Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley succeed. Stevens is at first disoriented as to where he is or what his mission is. As the film progresses and the scene on the train plays out continually, he begins piecing the puzzle together, eliminating possible suspects and getting close to the culprit.
The monkey wrench that gets thrown in is in the form of Michelle Monaghan's Christina, a friend of the man Stevens has leapt into. A connection is formed between the two, and Stevens begins questioning whether what he is seeing is really just a recording of a predetermined event or an actual reality that can be altered. It sets up for an overarching question of fate, but the trigger is never fully pulled. Instead, the story unfolds, moves in a decidedly forward manner, and like the train at the center of Stevens' mission never deviates from its path.
At first the bond Stevens forms with Christina is a bit jarring. At first he questions her materiality thinking it all to be a training exercise and her a pre-programmed character designed to distract him from the mission at hand. Once her reality is confirmed, though, his attention seems to snap into a connection with her. Jolting as it is at first, Gyllenhaal and Monaghan end up making it work, and it's a minor speed bump along their path of affinity.
Despite what the mission controller and scientist in charge of the project, played with all the goofy dynamism and eccentricities of a James Bond villain by Jeffrey Wright, Stevens becomes determined to save not only the millions of lives at stake in the forthcoming attack but also the lives of those on the train. It doesn't matter that he is told time and time again, as the audience is by proxy, that this mission is futile. The words "that's not how it works" seem to just bounce off his ears without the slightest hint of penetrating his thoughts. He literally becomes a man on a mission, but the audience is left to hear the same speech delivered time and time again. It's not the eight minutes of the actual event that grow tedious. It's the hard-headedness of our hero and the ensuing lecture that wears the patience down.
Jones' direction is just about as straight-forward as the screenplay in Source Code. There are moments of flare spread throughout none of which have to do with the overly CG explosion on the train. Jones offers a handful of creative shots. Some of these are even hindered by the usage of computer effects, but they offer a hope of a director who has something to say and an incredibly inventive way of saying it.
The pod in which Stevens' is transported to his mission calls back on the minimalism Jones brought to Moon, the simple set that requires one actors talents to make it all real. Some effects thrown into these pod moments work quite effectively, as well, far more so than the grander stage the trains sequences are presented on.
There are moments of real drama found in Source Code as well, and Jones' confidence is allowed to seep into these scenes, to hold the camera steady on his actors' faces and let the moment resonate. A phone call late in the film offers the most genuine emotion the film has to offer while also giving us one of the most inspired voice casting in recent memory. Gyllenhaal may not be as inspired a choice as that voice, but he is quite good in the lead role here. Required to carry just about every scene and able to bring both levity and emotion to the table, his confidence exudes in the character.
Ripe with possibilities that never seem to manifest, and a straight and narrow path from beginning to mind-numbingly expository conclusion, Source Code is a film of hope. Hope first and foremost that it's not an indication of the commercial and very nearly blunted direction Duncan Jones' filmography is headed. It's a definite recession from the cool and cutting Moon, which could be why it was such a disappointment. It's good but not great, and it has come from a director who has shown true signs of the potential for greatness.
Jeremy's SXSW Rating: 5.5 out of 10