|There's a bomb on the bus ... Sorry, train ...|
The secret to a good mystery is the delayed release of information. The facts that the protagonist needs to know are revealed bit-by-bit at dramatically expedient moments, mixed-in with a good proportion of red herring clues that lead nowhere.
In the first eight minutes of Source Code, we learn that Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) has jumped back in time and is wearing someone else’s face, like a refugee from Quantum Leap (that over-valued time-travelling version of The A-Team). Then everything explodes and it turns out that he is actually wired-up to a simulator like something out of an early Twilight Zone.
And that’s just the first eight minutes.
Of course, this is complete misdirection because, revealed so early, this information can’t be of any great consequence. This is simply introducing us to the framework, the structure, of the story into which we are being propelled. We need to find out why he keeps waking up in the past, on a train; why the train will explode at a precise moment; who is behind it and, ultimately, what he can do about it.
These questions are what involve Stevens for the film’s first act but, of course, even they aren’t the really important questions. What he really needs to be asking is quite how he can travel back through time to this same train for these same eight minutes.
The answers to that question are far more important and far more satisfying!
|This 'time machine' is sadly not as slick as a Delorean ... But it does have cable!|
This is a very smart, very well-structured film. On one viewing, I can’t fault its far-more-complex-than-it-looks structure nor its ferociously complicated logic. Script-writer, Ben Ripley has done a fantastic job here, largely because he had the luxury of working alone, without time pressures but with the interest (and financial support) of a producer. Scriptshadow interviewed him about this – here - well over a year ago, and he talks openly and eloquently about the process of creating this script.
You would think that a time-traveller who constantly gets to re-run the same eight minutes would fairly quickly run out of interesting things to do, but every time Stevens travels back, he learns new, fascinating details, he learns from his mistakes and he gets into a variety of fights. The film also manages to escape the shackles of its structure by remaining a compelling and exciting mystery!
It is to the credit of Ripley and director, Duncan Jones, that they make every repeat of those eight minutes exciting, compelling and different; whilst the intermissions between them, when Stevens reports back to his mysterious ‘handlers’, Goodwin and Rutledge (Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) become increasingly significant as the tale develops.
The two threads of the narrative (both on and off the train) weave cleverly around each other, feeding each other just enough to keep you keen.
The film has inevitably been compared to Inception (2010) and Groundhog Day (1993), but the similarities are really only in the beauty of the structure and in the way it credits the audience with the wit to keep up. Narratively, Source Code is more like a mixture of Vantage Point (2008) and Déjà Vu (2006) with maybe just an intriguing splash of Robocop (1987) added for taste! It also has a similar underlying theme to Jones’ debut, Moon (2009) and, I have to say, if you are going to have echoes of anything, four films I absolutely love is a good mix!
|Somewhere there is a copyright infringement happening! Sorry, I know it's wafer-thin, but any excuse to publish a picture from one of the best SF films ever made has to be exploited!|
But these similarities – whilst in no way being a criticism - are the reason why the film is only good instead of great! The territory Source Code is covering is familiar to us and that is a shame because there is some very clever film-making going on here.
In deference to this being an American movie with a relatively big American star – and the concomitant need to draw a big American audience - the focus in the third act changes from (quasi) science to (secular) faith, but that cleverly allows the film’s two narrative threads to have two very different endings which, instead of being the cheese-board I feared, are beautiful, satisfying, reassuringly-complicated and right!
Of course, as ever, the marketing people have simplified the concept as much as they could and their poster makes the film look like a mixture between The Adjustment Bureau (and you can find my thoughts on its appalling poster here) and a Disney DVD logo.
|Make every POSTER count, dammit!|
All of which fails to communicate the film's mystery and its literal race against time. I think the version below, done by designer Olly Moss (whose delightful blog is here) succeeds with both of those elements, but also adds the sense of a 1960s Hitchcock thriller, which this film also has, especially at the beginning and especially thanks to the excellent (and hopefully breakthrough) score by Chris Bacon.
|See? I'd buy THAT for a dollar!|
A far better piece of marketing is this 'infographic' (as our colonial cousins seem to call what is, in essence, a glorified graph) which was circulated by Summit Entertainment, the film's US distributor, and which you'd probably better not study too closely if you have yet to see the film yet!
|Remember "What is The Matrix"?|
Oh, and when you do, read the credits carefully for a clever little nod and wink to his film's similarity to Quantum Leap!
Like Moon, this is a film which won’t break any box-office records, but it will grow in stature over the years and, as such, forms the second step in a career for Mr. Jones which, if he is wise and fortunate, will see him climb to the critical heights and box-office clout of fellow-Brit, Christopher Nolan.
Dir: Duncan Jones
Stars; Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michelle Monaghan
Dur: 93 mins