Spellbinding, brain-teasing, fragmentally puzzling, heart-throbbing… Source Code is one of the elite thrillers. I know, it’s just an anonymous thriller opening in April with no earth-shaking advance buzz. I know, it’s hard to be impressed by much of anything anymore. I know, it’s hard to imagine Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan billed together for anything that would resemble a classic. What could I really say to convince anyone? Director Duncan Jones, the son of David Bowie, has made this his second film following his auspicious debut “Moon” (2009) with Sam Rockwell which also played on space-time continuum hypotheticals. For Army helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal), he zaps into the body of another man who has eight minutes to live along with other collateral damage victims on a Chicago commuter train. Now an avatar, but confused with the specifics of his participation, Colter sits across pretty and comely professional woman Christina Warren (Monaghan). Colter has reason to be afraid that he will have to repeat these eight minutes eternally, like “Groundhog Day,” while for everybody else it is always happening to them for the first time. In-between these shock time-ticking intervals, Colter is vaguely briefed by Army lab technicians (Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright play the two essential techs) as to how to find the planted bomb and track down the terrorist. Colter rides an endless loop to solve a puzzle more painstakingly real than virtual.
Many critics like to put their necks out there to slash apart heavily profiled films and excavate flaws from everything. I like to think myself as different as I would prefer sticking my neck out there to tout a great film concealed from under the radar. From the board of pop culture, expect solid reviews for “Source Code,” expect cool people to report they had a pretty good time, expect to hear things like, “It’s really good for a thriller.” I would predict that “Source Code” is more likely to get the respect of masterpiece status after it ages forty to fifty years – a stand-out in the head-trip genre for its time.
Hitchcock was a great man, and an incomparable influence in film history, and a dozen classics can be counted to him. But I truly think “Source Code” is more exciting than anything Hitchcock ever made, with one exception: “Vertigo” (1958). That’s the one Hitchcock film where I experience sensations of full-body tingling and shivers, gasps and goosebumps for more than just a moment but for at least nine minutes. It’s been a long time but I felt that greatness of sensation, surging through my body and elating my mind, during a juggernaut of a thriller. (See Duncan Jones on left, Alfred Hitchcock on right.)
I say this because there is a cine-geek mindset that believes that all the great taut thrillers that have been made belong to the past, with a majority of them made by Hitchcock. As if saying cynically that nobody of today is capable of delivering a masterwork that’s made with nimble precision, but Jones really has made an indelible pressure-cooker that I am sure will stand the test of time. Even if it does get time to get noticed.
The bigger clock at stake in “Source Code” is left to the Army and their classified information. At the end of every eight minutes for Colter, lies the uncomfortable dread of going through those horrible last seconds of a man’s life before he witnesses incineration around him. It’s easy to see how Colter can build attachment and compassion for Christina in his forced provisionals. It’s easy to empathize with Colter’s disorientations and dissatisfaction with his Army lab’s parsimonious releases of information. It’s human for Colter to jettison direct orders to figure out his own way to change history, but more than that, to decide himself who should and should not be the collateral damage in a mass count catastrophe. Will he also learn more about his own background than he thought he knew? Would he want to know?
Just as ingeniously devious as “Inception” but in relative movie terms where creative liberties are permitted, this tick-tock sci-fi thriller has more of an airtight plot. You like to follow filmmakers? Good, then take note that Duncan Jones is on his way to becoming a master.
93 Minutes. Rated R.
SCI-FI & FANTASY / RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK THRILLER / MASTERPIECE VIEWING FOR ANYTIME OF YEAR
Film Cousins: “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990); “Dark City” (1998); “The Matrix” (1999); “Memento” (2001); “Inception” (2010).