Just for the fun of it, I read 20 or so reviews of this film after seeing it. My suspicions were confirmed: Nobody in North America knows what the heck is happening in Source Code. Pulitzer winners, esteemed critics and reviewers for the industry’s most influential trade publications — every single one seems to have seen a different movie.
The Source Code I saw featured one of the most arresting opening scenes in recent memory. A man — Jake Gyllenhaal — jerks awake to find himself on a Chicago-bound train. Sitting across from him and chatting away is a fetching young woman — Michelle Monaghan — who clearly knows him. He, by contrast, hasn’t the slightest clue who she is or how he came to be there.
Gyllenhaal gets up, finds his way to the restroom and glances in the mirror. The face glancing back is not his own. The face on the driver’s license in his wallet is not his own. Before anything else has a chance to freak him out, the train and all aboard are blown up.
The next thing our protagonist knows, he’s jerked awake to find himself wearing a military uniform and strapped into some sort of capsule. A no-nonsense officer — Vera Farmiga — appears on a monitor and fields the onslaught of questions that follows. Gyllenhaal says he’s Capt. Colter Stevens, and he wants to know where the rest of his unit is. The last thing he can recall is flying a helicopter in Afghanistan. For the Army or the Air Force? It depends on whose review you read. I won’t even pretend to know.
Here’s where the movie jumps the track: The always watchable Jeffrey Wright appears on the monitor. He plays Dr. Rutledge, the scientist in charge of the base, known as Beleaguered Castle, and the mastermind of a breakthrough in time/space malarkey that he calls Source Code. Wright is a very fine actor. So fine he’s able to keep a straight face while running through one of the all-out silliest expositions in sci-fi history. Something about creating the technology to tap into a dead person’s brain and not just access the final eight minutes of his memory, but transport someone else into the middle of the remembered events.
Gyllenhaal has been transported into the memory of a man who died in the explosion, and his mission is to keep returning to the train and reliving those eight minutes until he discovers who planted the bomb. Which he does again and again, à la Groundhog Day, learning a little more in each new eight-minute loop. The film, written by Ben Ripley and directed by Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son, who made Moon), is undermined by its gimmick. The repetition becomes borderline irksome. Perhaps they should have transported Gyllenhaal into the brain of Bill Murray.
By the time Ripley and Jones make it to the final act, many trippy, philosophical questions have been raised, but all logic has been left behind like lost luggage. To give examples would be to reveal too much, so let’s just say Source Code is not this year’s Inception. It’s closer to something like this year’s Next.
To be sure, every member of the cast performs his or her duties capably; Gyllenhaal does an impressively credible job of fleshing out a character in an incredible situation. The movie’s shortcomings are virtually all attributable to Ripley’s overreaching script. He sets out to play with concepts and conundrums concerning the nature of reality and then plummets so far into his own rabbit hole he’s never able to climb out.
It’s a shame. Given its cast, its promising young director and its subject matter, the picture had the potential to be far-out fun. Especially in these dumbed-down, one-new-rom-com-per-weekend times, a good mind game is a terrible thing to waste.