I enjoyed Source Code immensely. It’s a tightly constructed thriller, well photographed on a—comparatively—modest budget, and unfolds its science fiction efficiently and intriguingly, providing several genuine surprises in its brief running time (just over 90 minutes). Without giving away too many of those plot points, since an essential part of enjoying Source Code is seeing just how it all resolves, its greatest strength is in letting its characters make mistakes, and having the big fancy SF technology not work exactly the way everyone seems to think it does; even that’s teetering on the brink of saying too much, so let’s take a step back. Suffice to say, it does not end the way I thought it was going to.
Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal in one of the better performances of his career as an Air Force helicopter pilot who, to great disorientation, wakes up in another man’s body on a commuter train bound for Chicago. A woman (Michelle Monaghan) speaks to him as though they know each other, as do several of the other commuters. Gyllenhaal is still in the process of figuring out what’s going on when the train explodes, killing everyone aboard.
Gyllenhaal snaps awake again, this time in a small, dark enclosed space that resembles a helicopter cockpit in an inexact sort of way. Another military officer (Vera Farmiga) is speaking to him cryptically over a video screen. She and her superiors—led by the eccentric (don’t call him a mad scientist) Jeffrey Wright—need Jake Gyllenhaal to find where the bomb that blew up the train is, and who put it there. And the clock is ticking, since if he fails to find the bomb in time, a dirty bomb will be detonated in downtown Chicago, potentially killing a million people.
The means by which Jake Gyllenhaal is accomplishing this is some very fictional science. Jeffrey Wright has, being a mad scientist, developed a way to interpret the electrical field created by the brain and create a fully immersive virtual simulation of the last eight minutes of that person’s life. Jake Gyllenhaal, as a similar brain type, has been drafted to do the interpretation. Phrases like “quantum physics” and “parabolic calculus” are thrown around to explain; it’s a perfectly tasty SF word salad that makes just enough sense as to not distract from the story (and leads to a couple neat visual metaphors in that ending that I really should shut up about). And Jeffrey Wright would sound cool saying anything, so there’s that as well. However, all this science leads Jake Gyllenhaal to ask some very important questions that no one seems to want to answer, like “where am I?” and “why can’t I remember anything between flying a helicopter in Afghanistan two months ago and here working with you charming, inscrutable people?” And therein lie spoilers.
You can probably sense me chomping at the bit to talk about the ending, because it’s either really smart or really dumb, with no real in-between, and if you all go see Source Code you can enlighten me on which it is. Whichever it is, the 85 or so minutes of movie that lead up to that point are very compelling. Director, writer Ben Ripley, and cast alike all take it easy on the histrionics, resulting in a movie that manages to be both low-key and gripping at the same time.
It also, in a pleasant departure from a lot of contemporary SF pictures that lean too heavily on the special effects, features thought-provoking SF ideas. When Jeffrey Wright describes the science behind the gadget that lets Jake Gyllenhaal go back and explore for eight minutes at a time, he elides over something that he dismisses as irrelevant, but actually is what his invention actually does. Unintended consequences are, of course, something every SF mad scientist since Victor Frankenstein has had to confront at some point or other. Source Code’s take on this is, characteristically, low-key; no monsters are turned loose or anything. But if you see Source Code with a friend, chances are quite high that you’ll exit the theater saying to each other “but, wait….” The good news is, the ensuing conversation will be about very interesting stuff. Just be sure, first, to ignore the fact that you’ve seen the trailers about ten thousand too many times; the movie itself is both more and less, in all the best possible ways. What it really is is a concise, engrossing picture made by people who know and love classic science fiction. It is, in short, a movie aimed squarely at us. And once I figured out (and I think I did) exactly how the ending happened, I realized, it hit the target, dead-center.