SXSW Review: Duncan Jones Sidesteps the Sophomore Slump with ‘Source Code’

By  · Published on March 28th, 2011

If you don’t know who Duncan Jones is, it’s high time you learn. Jones burst onto the movie scene with his debut feature Moon, a low-budget sci-fi flick that wowed audiences at Sundance back in 2009. Picked up by Sony for US distribution, Moon is a subtle, quiet film featuring an incredible performance from Sam Rockwell, but the best part about it is that it’s a smart film. With the bright shiny colors and backseat plot propelling Avatar to eleventy billion dollars worldwide, it’s surprising that anyone rolled the dice on a small, smart sci-fi film. It’s refreshing that someone had the balls to say “yes” and doubly refreshing that audiences mostly embraced it. Now Jones is back at the helm with about 35 million of Summit’s hard-earned Twilight dollars to play with for his second feature, Source Code.

Note: I saw Source Code blind and I think that’s a good way to see this type of film. I’m told the trailer gives away basically the same information that I’ll reveal below but it could be considered spoiler-y. If you’d rather go into not knowing anything, and I highly recommend that method of film-viewing, then please skip the next three paragraphs.

Source Code jumps right into the plot, leaving the audience to guess and put pieces together as the film progresses. Exposition occurs, but organically throughout the film instead of in chunks upfront or in clunky voice-over narration. The expectation that the audience is smart enough to fend for themselves is a welcome stance not often taken with a bigger budget studio film. After the credit sequence, played over slow, rolling aerials of Chicago and the surrounding Illinois landscape, we cut immediately to Jake Gyllenhaal waking up from a nap on a train headed into the city. He’s confused and disoriented, being called someone else’s name by Michelle Monaghan, the beautiful women sitting with him. He heads to the bathroom where he discovers someone else’s drivers license in the wallet he’s carrying and someone else’s face staring back at him in the mirror. Before he can make heads or tails of anything, the train explodes in a blast of fire and smoke and he awakes once more, this time in a flight suit strapped into what appears to be a fighter jet of some kind.

And then Vera Farmiga enters the film. Her soothing voice and calm face crackle to life over a video screen in the hull of the jet. She goes through a seemingly random sequence of phrases and story bits that Gyllenhaal’s mind latches onto like a life raft, somewhat restoring his memory and state of consciousness. He’s still confused by the train, unsure of what happened and why he was there. Bewildered and upset, he turns to Farmiga for answers.

So what is source code and why was Gyllenhaal on that train? Essentially source code is a new technology that allows specialized technicians to recover short-term memory threads from the recently deceased and allow another person to access and relive those memories. Jeffrey Wright plays the slightly crazed doctor who created the technology and has convinced the military to use it as counter-terrorism measure. In this case, a bomb was detonated on a train heading into Chicago, in what is said to be a series of bombings planned for the city. Gyllenhaal is being sent back through the short-term memory of one of the passengers who died with the mission of finding out who planted the bomb on the train so the authorities can apprehend that person and prevent the next bombing.

If this sounds confusing, rest assured that it is…for about 30 minutes. The idea behind Source Code is undoubtedly complex, but what you need to understand about it is clearly laid out and easy to grasp. Do we know everything about the technology and how it works? No, but we don’t need to understand all the ins and outs to be able to enjoy the film. After all it’s a movie, it’s not like this technology actually exists, so of course they don’t go into too much detail explaining it. What else is there to say? That they based the whole thing on the flux capacitor? The point is that Gyllenhaal has an 8 minute window (8 minutes being the supposed length of our short-term memory) before the bomb explodes to find out as much as he can and the military powers represented by Farmiga and Wright will keep sending him back to relive those 8 minutes until he figures it out.

Source Code is a highly entertaining film with a decently intelligent premise that should appeal to a pretty wide audience. There’s plenty for the popcorn crowd to latch onto without asking the intellectuals to put their brains on hold. At the forefront is Gyllenhaal, who turns in a stellar performance selling the initial wide-eyed confusion as well as the gradual understanding and eventual conclusion. He is easy to sympathize with and a good character to use as the viewer’s portal into the film’s world.

Farmiga is also impressive, toeing the cold and unyielding military line while showing genuine emotions in her eyes. Her somewhat halted speech pattern works particularly well with her character. It really seems as if she’s taking time to think everything through and weigh each response. Those two performances in particular give the movie a sense of balance.

In the end, Source Code isn’t going to win any awards. It’s a perfectly entertaining sci-fi film and it’s just the type of film that should do well at the multiplex on a Friday night. Jones has managed to step up to a new budget level without comprising the type of intelligent storytelling that got him to this point. If Duncan Jones is indicative of the next wave of big-budget studio filmmakers, then the movie-going public is in good hands.