March 31, 2011

SOURCE CODE: If At First You Don’t Succeed…

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Worth a ticket.
They say that the definition of madness is repeating the same action with the expectation of a different result.  But that diagnosis doesn’t allow for this:  a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up and finds himself on a train, where his reflection in the mirror doesn’t look like himself, and the woman in the next seat (Michelle Monaghan) who apparently knows him doesn’t address him as himself.  Eight minutes later he, the girl, and the train all blow up… and the man wakes up again, to find himself seemingly in the middle of a mad government experiment (under the direction of Army officer Vera Farmiga and scientist Jeffrey Wright), his mission to find out who planted that bomb on the train by reliving the last 8 minutes of that other man’s life over and over again, hunting for clues.  That’s the premise of SOURCE CODE, an intriguing sci-fi action movie twist on Groundhog Day.   
Although Source Code comes from director Duncan Jones, who last gave us the indie fantasy Moon (see review here), there’s nothing esoteric about this genre exercise.  Ben Ripley’s script isn’t particularly interested in Groundhog Day-like existential comedy, either–despite its unusual premise, and the even more convoluted explanation of Gyllenhaal’s actual place in the story, the picture is very much focused on solving its twin mysteries:  who bombed that train, and what’s the experiment all about?  In truth, it’s not all that hard to figure out either answer by the film’s halfway point, but the picture is carried along by its brisk pace and the moderately clever way it works everything out. 

Although Source Code doesn’t have a massive budget, it’s certainly many times that of Moon, and Jones handles the digital explosions and thriller mechanics effectively (having proven his prowess, it would be sad if his next move is to a mega-budgeted superhero epic).  His technical team includes the very experienced Don Burgess (Spiderman) as cinematographer and Paul Hirsch (Mission Impossible) as editor.  Gyllenhaal, whose career has bounced around, has a part that’s well suited to him:  not full-fledged action hero, but Hitchcockian ordinary guy thrust into a crazy situation.  Vera Farmiga, most of the time confined to a monitor screen in Gyllenhaal’s testing area, proves that she can give a full-fledged performance in a box (it’s like Beckett’s “Happy Days” as a genre role), but Monaghan doesn’t get to do much more than look attractive and be charming, and Wright is hobbled by having to play the most cliched character.
Source Code isn’t a truly satisfying puzzle movie; the last reel, in particular, doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and it doesn’t have any ambition to “mean” something.  In a year where Sucker Punch represents Hollywood’s idea of action fantasy, though–it’ll do.  
(SOURCE CODE – Summit – PG 13 – 93 min.- Director:  Duncan Jones – Script:  Ben Ripley – Cast:  Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright – Wide Release)
–Mitch Salem

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."