For all of the money it made and the accolades it strong-armed, Christopher Nolan’s Inception certainly didn’t settle for easy acceptance. Sci-fi heads enamored with the film’s heady mythology and mind-bending narrative walked toward “Exit” signs alongside teenyboppers and romantic comedy lovers who asked each other, “OK, so please explain to me what the hell just happened?”
Tip-toeing the fine line between brainy concepts and accessible performers’ interplay isn’t easy for science fiction filmmakers, which is why on-the-rise director Duncan Jones’ second feature, and first pitch to masses in wide release, Source Code is a success. The advanced technological elements, while at times faulty and underdeveloped, are slick enough to appease big thinkers, yet whenever the smart-guy talk subsides, Source Code’s characters are appealing and sympathetic.
Most surprising of all is leading man Jake Gyllenhaal, an undeniably gifted dramatic actor who’s been intent on action star credibility as of late. Unlike last year’s dull CGI spectacle Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time, though, Source Code provides him with an energetic script and a multifaceted role to play.
Gyllenhaal stars as Army Captain Colter Stevens, a decorated man who’s stuck in a Groundhog Day-like predicament: He keeps getting sent back into another man’s body, a suit-and-tie passenger on a doomed Chicago commuter train. Stevens has eight minutes to locate a bomb and find the terrorist responsible, or else he’s transported back inside a pod-like cocoon, where government-assigned doctors continue to use him as a guinea pig in their experimental new foray into homeland security.
Stevens is deeper than his mission, and, in the role, Gyllenhaal has found an action hero well-suited to his strengths. The captain takes a liking to Christina, a beautiful passenger played by the reliable Michelle Monaghan. The actors’ chemistry is apparent from their first scene together; able to lay his charms on and engage in crisp dialogue, courtesy of gifted screenwriter Ben Ripley, Gyllenhaal shows off the straight-man chops he’s demonstrated in movies like last year’s enjoyable chick flick Love And Other Drugs, a possible inclusion for version 2.0 of Complex's 25 Romantic Comedies That Don't Suck list. Those aforementioned rom-com heads will love it.
The great news for love-haters is that Jones has more on his agenda than high-stakes romance. After wowing critics and indie film watchers with the solemn 2009 sci-fi psychodrama Moon, the English director roars through Source Code’s taut action scenes and fluid special effects bits with real aplomb. At a brisk 90 minutes, Source Code is nicely paced; Jones doesn’t allow for any drags in momentum, keeping his camera in motion while finding ways to maintain interest in the performances of Gyllenhaal and his castmates (including small but on-point turns from Jeffrey Wright and Vera Farmiga) amidst the rapidness.
Source Code is popcorn entertainment handled with more flair and substance than most glossy action cinema, but it’s not a complete triumph. Ripley’s script jumps right into a whodunit mystery, sending Gyllenhaal on truncated wild goose chases stocked with clues and red herrings. In an interesting subversion, the culprit’s identity is revealed rather quickly, which would be fine if it weren’t for how anticlimactic he or she (no spoilers here, folks) proves to be; unmasked as a third-rate villain, the bomber calls the entire “catch the terrorist” subplot into question.
Source Code is at its best when left in Gyllenhaal and Monaghan’s hands, and that’s more often the case than not. But it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that the potential for a superior mystery film is sacrificed for wider appeal.
With such a scarce number of commendable sci-fi movies in the market, though, we’ll take what we can get, and thankfully Source Code’s positive factors outweigh its problems. For Jones, the economically constructed thriller officially kicks off his welcoming party into the limited pool of blockbuster-worthy filmmakers. With a laudable Gyllenhaal in his corner, the director has assembled a fine piece of affable genre escapism.
Source Code might not blow your mind, but it'll certainly massage it with strokes of tension, romance, and excitement. There's even a happy ending—what more could you want from a masseuse?