Source Code (2011, directed by Duncan Jones)
We're two films into his career, and it's pretty clear what turns Duncan Jones' crank. Like Moon before it, Source Code uses science fiction trappings to explore humanity's free will and survival instinct. And like Moon, Jones isn't afraid to apply DJ sensibilities to filmmaking, mashing up genres and sampling from the classics to try and create something that is still unmistakably his own.
Unlike Moon, though, Source Code struggles to escape the gravity of those influences, and Jones' voice at times gets lost in the noise. It's hardly what you'd call a sophomore slump - Source Code is entertaining enough, with some interesting ideas and a couple of great supporting performances - but it's not career-defining either. (At least, I hope not).
If Jones gets anything perfectly right, it's the opening minutes of the film. The precredits sequence is flat out great. Over a score that sounds like it's cribbed from a top-notch 70s paranoid political thriller you've never seen, Jones intercuts between swooping aerial shots of Chicago and a commuter train hurtling towards the city. The music, the pacing of the shots, all scream one thing: something capital-b Bad is going to happen.
After that, Jones tosses the audience straight into the deep end of the plot. Jake Gyllenhaal wakes up on the train and finds himself sitting across from a woman (Michelle Monaghan) he doesn't know. In fact he doesn't even know how he got on the train - last thing he remembers, he was piloting a chopper in Afghanistan. The reflection he sees in the window isn't his face, and Monaghan keeps calling him by someone else's name. He's disoriented, angry, very nearly in a blind panic, and then boom.
No, literally, boom. The train blows up, killing everyone aboard. And then after blowing up, Gyllenhaal finds himself back in uniform, locked in a strange capsule with no memory of how he got there either while a different woman on a monitor grills him on the details of what he just saw...
From there, things settle down into a rhythm. Gyllenhaal is part of a covert anti-terrorism initiative trying to thwart the next attack by the train bomber. Through the magic of quantum physics, he's able to re-live the last 8 minutes of the life of one of the train's passengers over and over (and over and over) again, to try and find clues pointing to the identity of the terrorist. As he does so though, and despite being told repeatedly by his superiors that the people upon the train are already dead and that there's nothing he can do for them, Gyllenhaal starts to care about his fellow passengers (especially, of course, the pretty one sitting across from him) and tries to save them as well as complete his mission.
If that sounds like a Frankenstein's monster sewn together from equal parts 12 Monkeys and Groundhog Day, well, that's because it is. But there's a spark created by the collision of those two concepts that propels the film, and the script gives enough credit to the audience's intelligence that it never bogs itself down with exposition, although a large degree of credit for that needs to go to the always awesome Jeffrey Wright. He plays the scientist in charge of the project with a preening intellect that is simply astounding to watch. His one attempt to explain to Gyllenhaal how the project works lasts all of about thirty seconds and simultaneously gives you just enough information to suspend your disbelief while also making it clear how tired he is of dumbing down his genius for lesser minds. It's phenomenal, as is the rest of his performance. Why Wright isn't a bigger star is one of the great mysteries of modern Hollywood.
The other standout performance is Vera Farmiga as the face on the monitor, Gyllenhaal's liaison with the project HQ. Like Gyllenhaal, she finds herself trapped between her orders and basic human decency, but unlike Gyllenhaal her dilemma is a lot less theoretical. She takes what might have been a very jarring transition from ruthless model of military efficiency to bleeding heart, and makes it seem natural and inevitable. It's not a showy performance, but it's a very, very good one.
As for the leads? Well... Monaghan's sweet-natured cutie role is certainly necessary to get you as invested as Gyllenhaal in the fate of the passengers, but it doesn't give her a whole lot to do other than smile and occasionally scrunch up her brow in confusion. And good ole Jake, bless his heart, just doesn't have the over-the-top personality of a Willis or a Cage to really ever become a full-blown Everyman action hero, but in a role like this which is lighter on action and heavier on emoting, he's entirely adequate.
There's one other thing that makes Source Code slightly more than the sum of its parts, and that's its metaphysical underpinnings. Speaking as someone with a great love for pop culture bastardizations of quantum physics, this movie handles the whole 'multiple universes' concept as well as any big Hollywood production I've ever seen. Every time Gyllenhaal goes 'back' to those eight minutes, his choices create a new universe branching out from the old one. Since they all end in the train blowing up anyway (thus collapsing the wave, if you're following this and your eyes didn't glaze over a couple of sentences ago) Wright dismisses any of Gyllenhaal's concerns as nonsense. There's only one 'real' universe, and it's the one Wright is standing in. But as Gyllenhaal keeps pushing the envelope on what he can get done and get away with in those eight minutes, he becomes more and more certain that these universes aren't just shadows of probability, and are just as real as the world he's being sent from. The payoff on it all is really quite well done, even if it does raise some curious moral questions.
In short, Source Code is a fairly well-shot (one unfortunate CGI shot aside), reasonably clever movie with a couple of really good performances. Just so long as you aren't expecting to have your mind blown, it's worth checking out.