Enter the ‘Source Code,’ have mind blown

By Drew Hunt

French director Jean-Luc Godard once said, “Cinema is not the station. Cinema is the train.” There’s a distinct air of truth to that. If movies are meant to provide an experience that transports us to some place new, a train is an accurate analogy. Meanwhile, the station represents cogitation: a space to reflect on the journey.

Keeping this in mind, the new movie “Source Code” is in some ways a rumination on the nature of cinema. In other ways, it’s a sleek sci-fi action flick brimming with adventure and intrigue. Dexterously directed by Duncan Jones—the man behind 2009’s buzz-worthy flick “Moon”—“Source Code” is grippingly entertaining.

In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Captain Colter Stevens, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot on duty in Afghanistan. Somehow, Stevens wakes up aboard a Chicago-bound commuter train in the body of a stranger. He quickly learns he’s taking part in a secret government mission to find a terrorist who bombed the train and threatened to detonate more. Using a new technology called “source code,” he is able to inhabit the memory of recently deceased individuals for the last eight minutes of their lives—which is exactly how long Stevens has to find the culprit.

Forcing him to take part in the mission is the mad scientist—Jeffrey Wright—behind the “source code” technology and his genial assistant Carol Goodwin—played by Vera Farmiga. Unwilling to give Stevens the whole story, their deliberate ambiguity gives the film its intrigue. They make one thing clear: What’s done is done. The people on the train are dead and there’s no saving them. This makes things difficult for Stevens, who is falling in love with one of train’s passengers—played by Michelle Monaghan.

This quickly becomes the film’s central conflict. As Stevens spends more time in this doomed reality, he becomes more convinced he can save it. Stevens is aware the people on the train are essentially figments of his imagination, yet he wants to see them live—even if their “reality” no longer exists.

“Source Code” becomes less about saving the world and more about shaping it. Stevens’ heroism is Jones’ way of illustrating the impact we have on our lives. It’s a delicately humanist exploration that subverts elements of sci-fi.

Jones has shown a proclivity for intelligent sci-fi filmmaking. “Source Code,” despite its broad premise, has a wry cleverness that keeps the film from being formulaic. Like all great genre directors, Jones makes the rules work for him and not the other way around.

The film unfolds methodically as Stevens relives the same eight minutes over and over again. What sounds like rigid gimmickry makes for interesting narrative, vignette-like structure allowing Jones to experiment with rhythmic editing techniques. Each sequence within the source code follows a certain set of visual cues, but Jones is quick to play with form and style. No two “source codes” are alike, visually or thematically.

And while “Source Code” surveys many avenues of memory and fatalism, it explores the movie-going experience as a whole.

If Godard is right when he says, “Cinema is the train,” what happens when the train stops before it reaches the station? Or more specifically, what happens when the train is destined to repeat itself every eight minutes? As Stevens sets out to create a new reality—or, in keeping with the analogy, a new station—for a group of recently departed people, Jones demonstrates film’s ability to show us new perspectives.