Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 11, 2011)
Back in 2008, Duncan Jones opened eyes with his well-regarded feature debut Moon. Jones comes back with a bigger-budget, higher-profile project via 2011’s Source Code.
Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself on a mystery train in a chat with a strange woman (Michelle Monaghan). She calls him “Sean” but he doesn’t know who that – or she – is. Stevens takes a few minutes to attempt to get his bearings before a bomb explodes and wrecks the train.
When this occurs, Stevens finds himself transported elsewhere, and a superior named Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) asks him a series of questions about the bomb. Stevens doesn’t understand any of this – he thinks he was just in combat in Afghanistan – and thinks it’s a simulation.
Eventually Goodwin spills some beans and lets him know that the explosion happened earlier in the day and more attacks will follow if Stevens can’t discover the culprit. Stevens repeatedly goes back to the same circumstances and has eight minutes each time to play detective. Along the way, he grows fond of Christina, his seat mate, and decides that he wants to do more than simply play detective: he wants to figure out how he can save her.
If that sounds like an action/sci-fi take on Groundhog Day, that’s because this is essentially the case. This doesn’t make Code a copy of the Bill Murray hit, as the two boast quite a few dissimilarities, but they both do follow a reasonably similar template.
I think Groundhog handles the concept better, though, as Code seems more than a little muddled. The main issue stems from its twists and turns, many of which feel like they exist just for their own sake. Some stories work best if they operate in a reasonably straightforward manner, and I think that would’ve been the case here. Code delves into its zigs and zags so much that it threatens to lose sight of its ultimate goal.
As it stands, the movie’s theme remains intriguing enough to keep us with it; while it almost derails at times, it never quite does so. I don’t know if it finishes on a terribly satisfying note, though. I don’t want to spill too many potential spoilers, but I get the feeling the movie’s finale wants to let its characters have their proverbial cake and eat it too. It takes an ending that I think would be emotionally satisfying and keeps going in a way that nearly cancels out the perceived resonance. This choice doesn’t ruin the conclusion, but it leaves a bit of a bad taste.
Part of the problem is that Code wants to be too many things to too many people. At times it feels like Hitchcock with a sci-fi twist, and other scenes give it a serious Philip K. Dick vibe. It wants to be a rockin’ action movie but it wants to delve into character drama as well.
I respect the ambition behind the attempt to span all these genres, but I think the script and Jones bite off more than they can chew. I’m not sure a more experienced director could’ve kept all those balls in the air, but Jones – talented as he clearly may be – can’t perform the necessary balancing act. The mix of genres doesn’t come together in a particularly satisfying way, so the “jack of all trades” approach undercuts some of the movie’s effectiveness.
Still, I certainly wouldn’t call Code a bad film, and it’s usually a pretty entertaining one. The actual identity of the bomber is something of a MacGuffin – it doesn’t really matter – but it’s fun to see Stevens’ attempts to find him, and his relationships with the two women in his life add some complexity. Christina represents What Might Have Been, and Goodwin gives Stevens a human face with whom to work through all the story’s emotional twists and turns.
Code certainly comes with a good cast, and all involved do reasonably solid work. I find Farmiga’s presence intriguing because I think she looks so much like Gyllenhaal’s sister Maggie. Was this a coincidence or did the filmmakers bring Farmiga on board partly due to that potential connection? I don’t know, but I think it works.
Gyllenhaal handles the lead role’s many facets well, and Monaghan seems fine as the damsel in distress/love interest. Speaking of physical resemblances, though, I must admit that whenever I see Monaghan, I’m thrown off because I think she looks so much like later years Michael Jackson. She’s a pretty woman but man, she really does resemble MJ in the years before his death. That’s not her fault, but it’s something I can’t help but notice every time I see her.
In another visual vein, Code loses some points due to its iffy effects. I know the movie didn’t boast a big budget – IMDB claims it was made for a relatively cheap $32 million – but an understanding of the costs doesn’t make the effects more convincing. The recurring train explosions are a major aspect of the film and they simply look artificial; other effects suffer the same fate, but the train scenes are the most grating because they occupy the most significant aspect of the movie.
Ultimately, I have to view Source Code as a disappointment solely because the film held so much promise. The end result occasionally lives up to expectations, but it’s too inconsistent to truly succeed. Still, it has its moments and becomes reasonable entertainment; if you go into it with an understanding of its flaws, you’ll probably like it more.