Sometimes it feels like original ideas are against the rules in Hollywood; most of the movies that get made, even the good ones, are rehashes of the same old ideas. This year’s Best Picture winner, for instance, was a film about an unorthodox therapist who is able to help our protagonist when other therapists have failed. Someone recently pointed out to me, it’s the same basic plot as “Good Will Hunting;” I mentioned that “Mary Poppins” is cut from the same cloth as well. Old ideas rehashed = box office (and Oscar) glory.
Which makes “Source Code,” a movie based around an original idea, that much more refreshing and entertaining. I’m not sure I completely grasp the original idea – it has something to do with “afterglow,” meaning a person’s consciousness survives for a little while after the brain has died, and it has something to do with parallel universes, and it has something to do with short term memory. It may very well be a completely presposterous idea, but that doesn’t really matter. At least it’s preposterous in a unique and intriguing way. “Source Code” is fun because the idea is executed well, and because the idea hasn’t been done before.
Jake Gyllenhaal is a soldier sent on a unique mission. A train has just been bombed, and the bomber has left a message that another, much bigger attack is imminent. A half-mad scientist (played by Jeffrey Wright, doing a very entertaining Dr. Strangelove impression) has a mad scheme to keep the second bombing from taking place. Using a technique he doesn’t even try to explain, Wright inserts Gyllenhaal into the short term memory of a guy who died on the train. He has eight minutes to find the bomb on the train, and figure out who planted it, but he can relive that eight minutes over and over again. However, outside of the dead man’s memory, the clock is ticking, and eventually that other, bigger bomb will go off, so the clock is ticking.
Problem is, Gyllenhaal has no idea how he got there, where he is, or what he’s supposed to do. Vera Farmiga is his handler, the gal in the outside world who guides and counsels him, and to whom he reports the clues he gathers each time through the eight minute train ride. There are certain facts Wright would rather not reveal to Gyllenhaal; Farmiga is caught in the middle. She does a great job turning a fairly standard character into a sympathetic one; she is clearly under stress herself, and unsure of the ethical ins and outs to what they are doing. Her job is to keep Gyllenhaal focused, complete the mission before the bomb goes, and keep him from getting sidetracked with questions like “Where am I and how did I get here?”
So Gyllenhaal finds himself onboard a train that has already exploded, talking to people who have already died in the explosion. Also on the train is Michelle Monaghan, who is obviously waiitng for Gyllenhaal (or rather, his doppleganger) to ask her out, as well as a struggling comedian, an impatient legal clerk, a college student, and a rather obtuse ticket taker, among others. Searching for the bomber is like looking for a needle in a haystack, and he only has eight minutes to find it.
More could be done with the mystery of the bomber; Gyllenhaal, once he gets down to business, finds him almost effortlessly. A bomb on a train is a setup reminiscent of Hitchcock, but “Source Code” lacks Hitchcockian intricacy. This can be forgiven the film, though, because instead of simply being a genre exercise, it chooses to delve deeper into the problems that arise from the ability of one man to enter another man’s memory. It decided to be deep instead of complicated.
“Source Code’s” director Duncan Jones is making a name for himself as a capable director of “hard” sci fi films. Hard sci fi isn’t about laser guns and swashbuckling spaceship drivers of the Han Solo and Serenity type, it’s about taking an idea straight from the pages of a scientific journal and exploring its implications. This used to be the realm of puply sci fi magazines, featuring stories by Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, amongst others. These authors knew that every time we discover or invent something new, new ethical questions are raised, and used stories to explore those questions. This is what “Source Code” does; without giving too much away, I’ll say that “Source Code” elegantly explores questions about identity, the afterlife, and the supposedly fixed nature of time and space.
Similar questions were explored by Jones’ last film, “Moon,” as well, and both films share a distrust of authority and a dark notion that the inevitable result of new technology will be new ethical violations of the human spirit. The difference between the two movies is that, if you choose, you can completely ignore the philosophical inquiries embedded in “Source Code.” “Moon” was slow and atmospheric, giving you plenty of time to unravel its complexities and ponder its questions; “Source Code,” on the other hand is a thriller about a bomb on a train and a race against time. It has way more in common with “Unstoppable” or “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” than it does with “2001: A Space Odyssey” — though the relationship to the latter is there, if you choose to look for it. “Source Code” is both a thrill ride and a brain trip, a popcorn flick and thinker’s film. It’ll be up to you how you decide to watch it.