Source Code Sends Gyllenhaal Back in Time to Save the Future (and Possibly Get Laid)

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 30, 2011

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Code blue balls: Jake Gyllenhaal (left) has eight minutes to find a terrorist, but tries to save Michelle Monaghan instead.

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Back when he was still a film critic and hadn’t yet become a stark raving lunatic, iconic director Jean Luc-Godard once said that the best criticism of a movie was to make another movie. By that rationale, I’d argue that Source Code is a rebuttal to The Adjustment Bureau. Director Duncan Jones’ sophomore effort is a sleek machine, touching on questions of true love, alternate realities and predestination, nailing them to the floor with a rock-hard discipline that this particular viewer applauds.

Source Code begins with Jake Gyllenhaal as a shell-shocked veteran of the Afghanistan War waking up after a snooze on a Washington commuter train. He has no memory of where he was or of his mission. Suddenly, a hot fellow passenger (Michelle Monaghan) is being entirely overfriendly. Weirdly enough, there’s another strange fellow staring back at him in the mirror whenever Gyllenhaal goes to the bathroom.

Then the whole goddamn train explodes.

Gyllenhaal is quickly plunged back to a frosty control bunker, video-linked to an even chillier commanding officer (Vera Farmiga) and her no-nonsense superior (Geoffrey Wright, who decided to let his ostentatious, bad-guy crutches deliver half the performance for him).

After some hasty explanation, we’re led to believe that thanks to the brain’s capacity to retain information shortly after death—plus a quantum physics equation to be named later—a secret military forensic operation has allowed Gyllenhaal’s grunt to mind-meld with a civilian victim and witness a terrorist attack that already took place several hours before.

The rules are hard and simple: He can only witness the last eight minutes on the train, and he can’t alter the outcome. Everything else is gobbledygook that director Jones ushers off the screen as quickly as possible, as opposed to The Adjustment Bureau, which kept re-explaining each arbitrary rule so often that it no longer even made sense to anybody, including the actors involved.

This bomber has a great big nuclear surprise planned for later in the day, so it’s up to discombobulated, time-travel-sick Gyllenhaal to navigate his way through this particular caboose, over and over again, until he finally locates the terrorist.

What follows is Groundhog Day meets Speed, a star-crossed love story unfolding in eight-minute couplets. Paced like a rocket and unfolding perilously close to real time, Source Code creates a maze in which we want the hero to solve the mystery and save the girl from a tragedy that has already occurred.

The lovely Monaghan, who, for the first time since her breakthrough role in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang , is allowed to exude her full charisma, provides some romantic distraction from the task at hand. (I’d rather flirt with her than hunt down a mad bomber, too.)

Working from a script by Ben Reilly, Jones plows a lot of the same gimmicks that made his 2009 summer sleeper Moon such a pleasant surprise. Notoriously born as “Zowie Bowie,” Jones has since scrambled far away from his father David’s formidable sphere of influence and carved out a niche within the kind of thoughtful, low-budget space oddities that folks just don’t make anymore. Camera composition and editing provide more thrills than the dodgy CGI.

And it’s nice to see Gyllenhaal, who so often struggles with roles above his pay grade, finally settling into a part he can finally handle. The Speed comparisons don’t end here, as Source Code reminds you of when Keanu gave up on all that Shakespearean balderdash and embraced his talents as a handsome guy who moves well on camera.

The movie plays by its own rules and—for most of its running time—is a masterful example of sci-fi at its best and most dystopian.

So just when it feels like the film should end, please walk out. Source Code has another 10 minutes to go that keep it from being a hallmark of the genre, and it soon falls into the realm of all those other April also-rans. There’s a crowd-pleasing whatzit of an addendum that frankly makes no sense and sells out almost everything that has come before, damn near ruining the movie. You can smell the studio executive’s notes from a mile away.

A smart projectionist would jump on this thing with a pair of scissors.

Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga
Running time: 93 minutes

Read our interview with director Duncan Jones here.

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