Source Code is a movie that comes within frustrating sight of greatness, but ends up being pretty good. There are strong ideas in the film, and great individual moments. I went in unsure about the movie’s scifi underpinnings, but in the end I think the time travel stuff - which is mostly hoo-ha dressed up in quantum mechanics, to be honest - works in a very satisfying way. But there remain large problems with the script that keep the film from really achieving what I think director Duncan Jones could have properly pulled off.
This is Jones’ sophomore effort, and it’s his first feature that he didn’t originate. Jones came into an existing project with an existing script, much more a gun for hire than he was on Moon, which was his vision. What’s surprising about that is how much Source Code ends up feeling like a Duncan Jones film after all; it has some serious structural similarities with Moon, especially the way the film’s twist isn’t so much a twist as a second act reveal. Like Moon’s Sam Rockwell, Source Code’s Jake Gyllenhaal is a man cut off from the world, except instead of being on the Lunar surface he’s trapped inside a mysterious pod. And like Rockwell, Gyllenhaal is working at the behest of authority figures who only appear to him on video screens, while he’s also trying to discover the truth and meaning of his situation.
I don’t know how much input Jones had on the final script, but to me the thematic similarities are intriguing. Where Source Code goes is very different from where Moon goes, but you can see the same issues resonating in both. Where Rockwell was the working man under the thumb of corporate powers Gyllenhaal is a soldier under the thumb of higher ups, but both men are discovering secrets and lies about their situations (while I wouldn’t consider Source Code’s reveal to be a spoiler I will keep it out of the review to respect those who wish to go in fresh). They’re both stories about finding connection in ultimate isolation, and about how strange those connections can be. In Moon Rockwell finds companionship with his own clone, while in Source Code Gyllenhaal begins falling in love with Michelle Monaghan, a woman who died in a train bombing.
While these thematic and story similarities present an intriguing throughline in Jones’ so-far short career, other elements frustrate. Ben Ripley’s script never seems to figure out a way to give the story urgency, for instance. Gyllenhaal finds himself being injected into the last eight minutes of the life of a victim of a train bombing just outside of Chicago, and he’s tasked with finding out who bombed the train. But since Gyllenhaal can just keep reliving the experience again and again, there’s not much urgency. The script finds some by having the bomber threaten to unleash a dirty bomb in the city, but that feels so distant from the events of the movie that it’s almost abstract. It’s especially abstract because every single character Gyllenhaal meets is assuredly dead; again and again he is told that there is no way to change the past that he is experiencing. Even when he gets Monaghan off the train before it explodes he still returns to the real world to find her very, very dead.
The urgency goalposts keep shifting, which is another problem. When one problem is solved it feels like the end of the movie, but then a new problem is introduced for the third act, which makes everything else feel a bit like a really, really extended prologue. And the new problem is a good one, but it’s just the way that it’s horned in at the end that makes it feel like an afterthought.
The movie is essentially Quantum Leap meets Groundhog Day (and Jones homages Quantum Leap very much, including a looking in the mirror scene that’s just one ‘Oh boy’ away from leading into the show’s opening credits, and a great cameo by one star of the show), which could be a problem. But Jones knows how to make it an asset; he finds new ways to explore the same train set again and again, never feeling stale but also never feeling like he’s cheating the repetitive nature of Gyllenhaal’s mission. He also populates the train with great, unique looking character actors. I actually wish that the film had spent more time with the other passengers on the train, because they’re all so interesting in small doses. Some of my favorite moments in the film involve Gyllenhaal going through the cast of characters, trying to figure out who the bomber is.
I think I could have forgiven most of the script problems with Source Code if the movie had recognized that it had a beautiful, uplifting and amazing ending that comes about ten minutes before the actual ending. I won’t spoil it, but there’s a freeze frame moment that is incredible, sums up everything that I think the movie needs to say about living life and being happy. I actually got goosebumps it was so good, those goosebumps you get when a movie truly hits a perfect note. And then the film keeps going and finds its way to a much less compelling ending that reads - to studio and marketing types, anyway - as a much more happy ending.
One day when I own Source Code on Blu I’ll just stop the movie at that moment and pretend the rest doesn’t exist. By then I’m hoping there will be another Duncan Jones film in theaters or on the way, one which much more fully serves his vision. It’s impressive that so much of Jones can poke through the pre-developed material here, but in the end even the best director is ultimately at the mercy of his script. Another couple of passes and I think the Source Code script could have been worthy of what Jones brought to the table.