When Duncan Jones' indie SF tale of a lonely clone on the Moon hit theaters back in 2008, it was a revelation. It proved that science fiction didn't need elaborate special effects to pack a punch - great ideas and inspired acting worked better than millions of dollars of CGI. The big question was whether Jones could pull off the same level of awesome in his sophomore film, Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and hitting theaters April 1. We saw the movie at South by Southwest over the weekend, and have a spoiler-free assessment for you.
The character study
Like Moon, Source Code is a character study of one man (Colter, played by Gyllenhaal) who is trapped in a world he doesn't quite understand. The movie begins with Colter, a pilot whose last memories are of running missions in Afghanistan, waking up in the body of a schoolteacher on a train. After meeting the woman sitting across from him, and realizing that she thinks he's this other guy, he goes nuts and the train explodes. Then he wakes up again, this time in what looks like a weird, trashed cockpit. He's in his flight suit and is strapped into a chair next to leaking engine components. His only connection to the outside world is a computer screen where a military officer, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), tells him he's on a mission to find a terrorist on a train.
Confused, manipulated, and still not quite sure he's on board with this mission, Colter finds himself sent back to the same train - where he has only 8 minutes during each trip to try to solve the mystery of who set the bomb that blows up the train.
The first half of the film, where Colter tries to solve the mystery of the attack and the mystery of where the hell he is, is definitely reminiscent of Moon. We sympathize with Colter - Gyllenhaal plays him as a kind-hearted man who genuinely wants to save people, but who also has a healthy skepticism about military missions where his briefings clearly make no sense. Though sometimes Colter's story gets a little sappy, it's also genuinely moving.
The science in the fiction
Many will protest that the SF premise of Source Code makes no sense - everything hinges on a piece of technology whose "source code" lets Colter take an 8-minute jump into a soon-to-be-dead man's body. And there's no denying that this movie suffers because its technology isn't just magically powerful but inconsistent. Plus, the mad scientist who created it is a little too much like a parody of the unctuous, hand-rubbing evil guy who doesn't care who gets hurt as long as his invention is unleashed.
This was also the main issue that people had with Moon, where the technologies were used as metaphors rather than self-consistent bits of futuristic science.
The horrors of war
Luckily, the metaphor at the heart of Source Code is as powerful as the one in Moon. As we watch Colter going back to the train over and over, engulfed in flame and dying no matter what he does, we get the grim feeling that he's reliving the horror of war. It's as if we're trapped in the PTSD nightmares of a vet. No matter what happens, no matter how many people he has the opportunity to save, his dreams are full of fiery death. I think this is the most interesting part of the film, and Colter's dawning understanding of what's happening to him fits nicely into this subtext to the action.
And the cockpit set where Colter returns after each trip to the train feels like the ultimate war nightmare. He can't seem to escape from this cramped room - except to face another mission that ends in death.
Though the film is ultimately upbeat, with characters who are sometimes improbably ethical, there's a mournfulness to the storytelling that's rarely find in action movies. A grim desperation hangs over Colter's every move.
Will this movie blow you away the way Moon did? Probably not. It's constructed around a mystery with a payoff that's pretty interesting, but the final act of the film strains credibility so much that it will strain your patience too. Still, it's got the hallmarks of a Jones film, where character development trumps CGI bullshit, and ideas outweigh action. The problem here is that the ideas feel a little unfinished. You'll be intrigued but may be left unsatisfied.
The bottom line is that you'll want to see this movie, and it will definitely move you and make you think. But it's uneven.
We'll have a full review for you when the movie comes out April 1.