Friday, April 1, 2011

Reel Thoughts: Strangers on a Train

It’s unusual for a big budget action film to have deep moral and emotional resonance, but Source Code, directed by Duncan Jones, is not your usual action film. It plays with the idea of alternate realities, untapped brain potential and fate versus free will in a way that Inception could only dream of doing. Along the way, it poses some very deep questions about what we expect of our soldiers and at what point does the greater good give you the right to trample on a person’s human rights.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a heroic Army captain who finds himself transported from his battles in Afghanistan to an isolation chamber in some unknown location. How did he get there? Is it outer space? Underground? We’re as confused as Stevens. The last thing he remembers is being on a Chicago commuter train in the body of another man. Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the beautiful woman sitting across from him, carries on a conversation as if she knows him. She’s confused by his actions, but tells him everything will be all right. At that moment, the train explodes, killing everyone onboard and propelling Stevens back to the pod.

There, he discovers that he is part of a program that places his mind into the body of a passenger for the last eight minutes of his life. Stevens has this time to unmask the bomber or he will strike again with a dirty bomb that will level Chicago. His only human contact is the sympathetic but business-like controller Carol Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and the mission’s creator, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright in a sinister performance). Slowly, Stevens unravels the truth behind the "Source Code" program, the gravity of his mission, and what has happened to him. He is desperate to change the events on the train and save Christina and the other passengers, but Source Code makes you wonder whether or not that is even possible. The film’s terrorist underpinnings are explored intelligently without feeling exploitative as it plays with our prejudices.

Jones, the son of David Bowie, was widely lauded for his sci-fi film Moon, which was equally ambiguous psychologically. Gyllenhaal presented him with the Source Code script, Jones explained at a Q&A earlier this month, and he was drawn to the film’s complexity. He added levity to what was a more serious, 24-like thriller. Jones also added the film’s mysterious, time-bending twist ending, which truly elevates the film above other, more formulaic time travel films. Jones recognized similarities between the film and cult TV show Quantum Leap, so he hired Scott Bakula to play Stevens’ father. There is a reveal towards the end of the film that is so visually powerful, audience members at the screening could be heard stifling tears. When a Hollywood action film can achieve that, you know that you have seen a unique story that bridges the standard genres of science fiction, drama and war films. Source Code may have a generic-sounding title, but it is a stunning original.

UPDATE: Source Code is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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