Friday, April 08, 2011

The 'Source' for intelligent sci-fi

“Source Code” is about a military man (Jake Gyllenhaal) who, through the marvels of modern technology, is sent into the last eight minutes of another man's life. This other man is on a train that is bombed, and it is up to Gyllenhaal to find the bomber in hopes of preventing a larger scale attack.

In description “Source Code” sounds like a slam-bang action thriller, and, in the hands of someone like Michael “Transformers” Bay, it may have been, but director Duncan Jones plays it on an effectively small scale.

This is Jones' second feature following 2009's “Moon,” a film about an astronaut on a three-year mission on the moon who makes a bizarre discovery that alters his reality. Both “Moon” and “Source Code” are essentially one-set films with a lunar base and train, respectively. The compact settings make the films more intimate, personal and rich with the detail of their spaces.

“Moon” was made for $5 million, a small budget for a sci-fi film of that nature. It worked as a calling card for Jones and landed him the bigger-budgeted “Source Code.” There is a risk when Hollywood attempts to co-op a voice from the so-called indie movie scene. Some filmmakers struggle with the increase in budget size, playing within a system and keeping a voice that is true to them.

This is not the case for Jones, who has made an intelligent, thoughtful film that is challenging, but also accessible to a mainstream audience. It hits all the marks that you'd like a film like this to hit: It has laughs, romance, suspense and even some unexpected tears.

The script is by Ben Ripley, whose only other major credits are the direct-to-DVD sequels “Species III” and “Species: Awakening.” That's not exacting high pedigree, but sometimes you need to take what you can get before doing something of more substance. The script here is smart, witty and well developed with a rather unexpected plot twist. There is an ongoing theme in which Gyllenhaal is looking to get in touch with his father that has a powerful emotional payoff.

Essentially, “Source Code” plays like a skipping record repeating the same eight minutes over and over again, but in this case the song slightly changes each time as Gyllenhaal learns more about his surroundings. Much like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” who was stuck in a similar time loop, Gyllenhaal gets better each time he lives those eight minutes until he gets them perfect.

Sitting across from Gyllenhaal every time he returns to the train is a sweet, intelligent, beautiful woman (Michelle Monaghan). Gyllenhaal slowly falls for her while trying to complete his mission. He wants to save her, but is told by those running the program (Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) that it doesn't work that way as what he's seeing isn't really the past, but a shadow of the past. That doesn't stop Gyllenhaal from fighting to prove them wrong.

Gyllenhaal makes for a charming leading man and does well with smart material. He brings an earnestness and sense of humor to his character that makes him likable and easy to root for. He has a nice chemistry with Monaghan, who finds interesting ways to keep her character fresh despite the repetition.

Farmiga, as the captain running the program, gives a subtle performance. Though it is never stated in the dialogue, you see her internal struggle when the sleazy inventor of the source code technology (Wright) wants to keep exploiting and pushing Gyllenhaal. It is an effective performance driven by quiet facial expressions and body language.

This is a thriller with a brain and a heart. Moviegoers who are willing to go with the high-concept premise and who want a film with more substance than the average action film are not going to be disappointed. This is a solidly entertaining film that is likely to cause some healthy debate after the credits roll.

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