"What would you do if you knew you had less then a minute to live?"
One of the many questions in and about the film Source Code, which arrived in theatres earlier this year. And today, in the first of two reviews for films, I'm kicking myself for missing it in the theatres. I recently had a chance to see it, and I came away impressed. The science fiction film stars Jake Gyllenhall, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright, and is directed by Duncan Jones. It deals with themes like time travel, fate, destiny, and family, and it requires repeated viewing. In fact, you'll like picking up on things you missed the first time.
The film opens on a commuter train on its way into Chicago, where a soldier named Colter Stevens (Gyllenhall) wakes up in confusion. He was last aware of being on a mission in Afghanistan, and has no idea how he came to be there. His seatmate Christina (Monaghan) sees him as someone else, a teacher named Sean who she's dating. While he tries to understand what's happening to him, a bomb goes off, killing everyone on board.
Stevens comes to in a strange capsule, where a military officer, Captain Goodwin (Farmiga), seen on a computer screen, informs him he's in an experimental system called the Source Code, allowing him access to the final minutes of a dead mans' life in an alternate reality. A bomb has indeed gone off earlier that day on a train, and the bomber intends to detonate a much larger one later in the day. He's told that he can't change the past, but through Source Code, there's a chance that the bomber can be identified in the prime reality and the bombing prevented. The project leader (Wright) lurks in the background, rather less sympathetic then Goodwin. He's more interested in ensuring that his program is viable.
Stevens is re-inserted several times into alternate realities, checking off potential suspects and gathering information. He tries to change fate, to save lives, even though he's been told it won't change the past in his own reality. And he comes to understand the full nature of what brought him into the program, something that he has to piece together on his own.
The premise is preposterous, of course, but ingenious and exhilirating at the same time. I was reminded of Quantum Leap, which had the premise of inserting a time travellers' soul into another body (in fact, there's a bit of an Easter egg linked to that television show in the cast). And then there's also Groundhog Day, the comedy that featured Bill Murray experiencing the same day over and over again. Memento also came to mind through the film, since that movie played around with the concept of fractured time. Lastly, I was reminded of Vantage Point, which, while not science fiction, dealt with the idea of examining the same few minutes of time from several points of view. One of the pleasures of a film like this is watching out for small details, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The audience is drawn right in there with Stevens, wondering who the bomber is, trying to piece together what's happening before the clock runs out.
Duncan Jones has only directed one previous feature, Moon, which I haven't seen, but this film certainly impresses. With much of the action through the film contained to a train and a peculiar capsule, and some of that action deliberately repetitive, Jones does a good job telling the story, ratcheting up the tension, drawing the audience along in this trip down the proverbial rabbit hole. His production and special effects crews really do their work well; the destruction of the train is seen several times in different ways, and feels harrowing. The effects used drawing Stevens into and out of the timeline have a suitably disorienting effect. And the music score is tense and haunting.
The casting works well. Gyllenhall is a sympathetic lead, conveying initial confusion when he first finds himself where he doesn't expect to be. As the film progresses, we see his desperation, determination, his wish to save lives, and his choice to try to subvert fate. And he has personal things to come to terms with. Gyllenhall does a fine job making us empathize with Stevens, and brings a sincerity and likeability to the role. Michelle Monaghan, whose work includes Mission Impossible III (rumor has it Cruise had to stand on a ladder to come eye to eye with her) and Gone Baby Gone, is a likeable leading lady, even while her character finds herself confused by the behaviour of a man she thinks she knows. Jeffrey Wright, a character actor who's been around for years in many roles and has, of late, been appearing in James Bond films, is suitably grumpy as the Source Code project director Rutledge.
The standout of the cast, however, is Vera Farmiga. She really came to prominence in Up In The Air (if you haven't seen it, remedy that anon!), and she continues to shine here. As Goodwin, she's the friendly face each time Stevens comes out of figuratively being blown up again. She's sympathetic to him, wants to give him the answers he's looking for, and ultimately helps him in a way you might not expect. As an actress, she brings warmth, empathy, compassion, and professionalism to the role, and it's what she doesn't say that intrigues me. Her eyes convey so much that she doesn't need to say, and that's a credit to her skills as an actress. Someone else in the role would have been far less intriguing.
The film isn't perfect, of course. I have some issues with the ending, which I won't go into, since that would be spoilerish. Regardless, I admired the technical aspects of the film, the pacing, the cast, and the very premise of playing around with time. As preposterous as the concept at its heart, the film is compelling, clever, and ultimately very human. Like good sci-fi is supposed to do, it makes you ask questions, and it makes you think. Which, let's face it, you're not going to get from a movie with lots of explosions and robots that turn into machines and a dimwitted mouthbreathing troglodyte named Shia.
Get your hands on this film. You'll enjoy it.