by Scott Mendelson
This won't be a terribly long review. I went into writer Ben Ripley and director Duncan Jones's Source Code relatively blind, and whenever I'm lucky enough to do that I try to give the readers the same courtesy. And since most of my issues with the film involve specific plot elements, there's only so much dancing around the edges I can do. The film wins points for constructing some original ideas and creating a thoughtful and compelling thriller. But it loses points by creating a narrative where much of the middle hour is a waiting game. And it loses even more points by arbitrarily changing the rules and wrecking its own logic in order to end the film on a happier note than it otherwise would.
The plot, very briefly, involves Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) suddenly waking up on a commuter train, sitting next to a charming and attractive young woman (Michelle Monaghan) who seemingly knows him and wearing a face that is not his own. As he stumbles his way through his confusion, the train is suddenly rocked by an explosion which kills everyone on board. This scenario repeats itself, as Colter realizes that he will be repeating the same eight minutes over and over again until he is able to piece together just what happened on that train.
And that's all you get. But right from that brief description, you can deduce that the film is basically the same eight minutes repeated several times. That means that much of the film basically involves us watching Stevens fail at his mission for one reason or another, only to be sent back to try again. And since there is only a barest hint of a ticking clock, there is no real tension in these near-misses as Colter can just got back and try again. Monotony sets in sooner than expected, leaving only the admittedly solid performances to keep us entertained. Michelle Monaghan does surprisingly much with expectedly little, as we occasionally forget that she's basically the token love interest in a story where having such a character makes little sense. Jake Gyllenhaal does the action hero thing quite a bit more successfully here than he did in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Vera Fermiga provides stoic moral support while Jeffrey Wright hams it up as the head of the super-secret program 'source code' program.
The other major issue with the film is difficult to discuss without going into spoilers, so be warned. Point being, the film establishes its rules pretty explicitly within the first twenty minutes. And while I have serious questions about the science in play, a token amount of suspension of disbelief is allowed. However, not only does much of the third act involve a seemingly superfluous trip after the core narrative has been resolved (think The Cell, where Jeniffer Lopez spent the entire third act pointlessly trying to mentally heal a brain-dead serial killer after rescuing the missing victim), but the film literally changes the entire fabric of space and time in order to give us an inexplicable happy ending. This is grand-scale cheating. The finale reeks of a filmmaker (or studio?) that couldn't live with the admittedly grim scenario that had been set up opting instead to magically rewrite the rules in order to give us a happily-ever-after.
In a world of remakes, reboots, and board game adaptations, it's tough to bag on an original and brainy thriller like Source Code. But at the end of the day, there is little tension and/or forward momentum for much of the picture, and thus we find little reason to stay engaged during the middle hour of the picture. And the picture shoots itself in the foot right at the final lap by arbitrarily changing the rules for its own benefit. As a mid-budget, star-driven genre thriller with brains and character to spare, Source Code is exactly the kind of film I want more of. I just wish it were a better film.