1 hour, 33 minutes
The Mark Gordon Company
2011 is apparently going to be the year for smart science-fiction films without that massive science fiction budget. First, we had "The Adjustment Bureau," which went the "Twilight Zone" route of merely suggesting at the larger mind-blowing implications without having to actually spend the money to show them. This week we have "Source Code," an actiony thriller more in the style of the Philip K. Dick adaptations, where there's a lot of mayhem surrounding a trippy, mind-bending premise, but again, structured in such a way that the filmmakers get away without having to break the bank on effects or outer space vistas.
While I wasn't nearly as impressed with "Code" as with "The Adjustment Bureau," this tight little time-travel tale never lags and stays entertaining throughout, despite a complete lack of plausibility.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Capt. Colter Stevens, an Army helicopter pilot in Afghanistan who awakes one day to find himself not in the cockpit of his chopper, but instead on a commuter train sitting across from a beautiful brunette. After a few minutes of panicked stumbling and confusion, Stevens discovers that he has assumed the identity of one of the passengers, a teacher named Sean Fentriss. Assuming that he must be participating in some high-end virtual reality training exercise, our hero looks around to see if he can figure out what his objective might be. Just then the train explodes, killing everybody on board. Whoops.
When Stevens again opens his eyes, he's in a strange pod-like contraption, affixed with a two-way speaker and a video screen. On the other end is an impatient Army technician who immediately begins grilling him about what he saw and who he thinks might have bombed the train. Gradually it is revealed that this isn't exactly a training exercise. Stevens is in the Source Code, a fancy way of saying that he's tapped into a computer program that somehow allows him to occupy the consciousness of someone who has recently died. He can, however, only occupy said consciousness for the last eight minutes of that life. Not enough time to strike up a relationship with the beautiful woman who sits across from Fentriss on his way to work each day, but maybe enough time to identify a killer and stop him from doing it again.
Now, while this may seem like time travel, it's really not, as Stevens is told. The Source Code is tapping into the deceased consciousness outside of our own timeline. Confused? So is our lead character and as an answer he's told it's all about quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus. Or in other words, don't ask. It doesn't really matter, though. The Source Code serves its purpose. It allows a doomed man to go back and try to right the wrongs of the past and redeem himself in the process. Isn't that what all good science fiction is about anyway?
The writing of "Source Code" is pretty good in the dialogue and the specifics that move the plot forward, and pretty preposterous in the general themes. I feel like the screenwriter didn't even try to figure out the larger whys and hows of this whole consciousness-jumping, "Quantum Leap"-esque plot. In fact, there's so little effort to explain, that it almost makes it all OK. If they'd made a half-hearted attempt and made no sense, that would have been worse. As it is, it's almost as if the filmmakers are just saying, "Go with it. Don't worry about the details, just enjoy the ride."
If you can do that, it is quite a ride. The reason the movie succeeds as well as it does is because the actors do a fine job of taking the characters on the page and making you care about them. Gyllenhaal, though sort of slumming in a role like this, is good as the man on a mission, and I especially liked Vera Farmiga as the harried technician who talks him through. Also good is Michelle Monaghan as Christina, the girl on the train, although she doesn't get to do a whole lot. After all, every eight minutes she blows up.
Also slumming, though not in a good way, is Jeffrey Wright, as Dr. Rutledge. Wright is an excellent actor, but here he does little more than play the typical cardboard villainous science administrator type. That complaint aside, "Source Code" serves as a fun date night action thriller -- not too heavy, not too violent, and, as long as you don't try to dig too deep into the mechanics of it all, not too much to think about.
"Source Code" is rated PG-13 for action violence and language.
In my opening paragraph, I implied that low-budget, high concept sci-fi was in this year, and that may be true here early on. However, all bets are off come summer when at least two superhero franchises are embracing the science fiction aspects of the genre in a big way. First, "Thor" takes us to other worlds and the astral realm of Asgard on May 6, and then Ryan Reynolds straps on a glowing emerald ring that rockets him to the center of the galaxy in "Green Lantern" on June 17. Naturally I'm exceedingly pumped about both of these films, as well as a new "X-Men" movie, "Captain America" and even a Harrison Ford western starring angry E.T.'s called "Cowboys & Aliens."
I'm sure I'm going to have my heart broken a few times, but from this vantage, the summer looks very cool indeed.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.
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