Director Duncan Jones’s first film, Moon (2009), united science fiction fandom. It was robust enough for the genre purists, it was intelligent enough for the art house wing, and it was accessible enough for the popcorn crowd. The film duly went on to win the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form and everybody nodded approvingly and said, “Hey, maybe the Hugos do work!”
When the trailer for Source Code did the rounds, however, it looked like only the last of those three tribes would be satisfied by Jones’s follow-up film. It looked an awful lot like a standard Hollywood sci-fi thriller, complete with Hollywood star and leading lady (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan) and the routine confusion of an identikit Hollywood PKD adaptation (the latest of which, The Adjustment Bureau, was also out this year). It even had a godawful Hollywood strapline (“Make every second count”). Had Jones been corrupted by the dollar sign?
I kept the faith. I actually liked Moon rather less than most people but saw it as a calling card and was sure he could do more. Instead, Jones has made the anti-Moon.
The film opens with a series of helicopter shots of Chicago. Such aerial opening shots are a Hollywood cliché but the geometry of the city, its intersecting trails, tracks, and towers, are beautifully composed by director of photography Don Burgess. It is the first and last time such expansive and expressive cinematography is deployed, however. Like Moon, Source Code is an extremely physically contained film; it is set almost entirely within a train carriage, a small capsule, and a windowless lab.
Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) wakes on a train, disoriented. He doesn’t know who is, where he is, how he got there, or who the woman sitting opposite him is. Around him a series of minor incidents—a can opening, coffee spilt on his shoe—are given a hallucinatory intensity. The woman opposite, Christina Warren (Monaghan), seems to know him but she thinks he is called Sean Fentress. His wallet agrees and when Stevens visits the toilet the face in the mirror isn’t his. He panics and as Warren is trying to calm him the train explodes. The loop closes.
Captain Stevens wakes in a capsule, disoriented. It somewhat resembles the cockpit of the helicopters he flew in Afghanistan but it is dark and cramped and also somewhat resembles the escape pod from a space ship. A woman’s face appears on a screen. She is unruffled in the face of his questions and confusion and implacably talks him into a state of equilibrium. This is Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and she explains the train is real, it blew up this morning and that Stevens can be sent back into Fentress’s head (but only for eight minutes). He can’t change the past but he can identify the bomber and thereby prevent him from detonating a dirty bomb in the middle of Chigago. She presses a button to send him back to the train. The loop opens.
Lather, rinse, repeat as needed. Early on Goodwin tells Stevens: “Don’t worry if you are confused at this stage.” It is an unsubtle directorial wink but Jones needn’t have worried; once the premise has been outlined and the bolus of technobabble has been swallowed, the ride is pretty straightforward. In the past, Stevens does the Groundhog Day shuffle, gradually piecing together the picture and—surprise!—establishing a growing rapport with the leading lady. In the present, Stevens tries to overcome the psychological stress of the situation whilst similarly solving a puzzle: where is he? Although Goodwin is extremely cagey, the audience will probably twig quite quickly.
The audience was equally quick to twig to the fact that Sam Bell, the main protagonist of Moon, was a clone. Like Stevens, his life span was rigidly defined (although measured in years rather than minutes) and was condemned to be repeated. Where the twin depictions of repetitive lives diverge is in the self-awareness of the protagonist. Bell is unaware of his predicament and only gradually and painfully becomes aware of it. This is reflected in the tone of the film; Moon is quiet, oppressive and uses an extremely muted color palette. It presents the universe as being grimly deterministic. Stevens, by contrast, is almost immediately aware of his situation and from there it is only a small step to accepting it and, ultimately, changing it. His journey much more conforms to the Hollywood archetype.
Correspondingly, the color palette is reversed (except inside the capsule, reflecting Stevens’s limited lack of awareness) and the film is suffused with a self-help sensibility: carpe diem, every second counts, what you do if you only had a minute to live? Although Moon concluded with an unlikely happy ending, it always seemed bolted on. Source Code‘s happy ending is never in doubt and Ben Ripley’s script could have been written by Basil Fotherington-Thomas (hello sky, hello trees; hello train, hello terrorists). The film’s capacity for sentimentality still manages to surprise, though.
This sentimentality is present not just in such obvious areas as the rote romance but the mushy political message of the film and its ready acceptance of American myths. On the one hand, there is a patriotic conservatism in the fact that both the hero and the heroine of the film are U.S. military officers. They are brave, they are honorable, they are compassionate. If there is something slightly unethical about this secret military project that is the fault of civilians; Congress have approved it and the creepy, preening head of the unit, Dr Rutledge (Jeffery Wright), is not a soldier and he certainly isn’t a veteran. (Incidentally, Wright gives an immensely hammy performance, whilst seemingly vocally channelling Tony Todd, which is almost bad enough to sink the film on its own.)
On the other hand, there is also a sort of bleeding heart liberalism crossed with individualism. When Stevens spots a slightly suspicious brown man leaving the toilet cubicle which contains the bomb, he is swiftly admonished by his proto-girlfriend for racial profiling. He shrugs this off, stalks the man and beats him up, only to discover the man is innocent. To underline his error, Stevens is then summarily run over by a train. Jones is sternly wagging his finger at the presumption of Stevens (and, it is implied, the viewer). Rather than being an Islamic terrorist, the actual bomber is revealed as a geeky white guy. Now, U.S. domestic terrorism certainly exists and has probably been on the rise in recent years but what is more interesting than the bomber’s race is the fact he acts as a lone gunman. He is cast in the role of Timothy McVeigh but he is never associated with an actual political philosophy and constructs bombs out of plastique and uranium rather than fertilizer and rocket fuel. Source Code requires an act of terrorism but doesn’t want to think about terrorism.
Taken together, these things suggest a film that endorses a naive “bad apples” theory of human suffering. The US military couldn’t possibly be an imperialist force expressly designed to attack other countries. Terrorists couldn’t possibly deliberately form themselves into politically motivated organizations in order to kill people. If people in the military act badly, they have gone rogue. If terrorists kill people, they are just dangerous loners. Source Code ignores institutions in favor of individuals and it does so because it has a bizarrely optimistic view of, well, everything.
Your service in Afghanistan? You only saved lives, never took them. The father you quarreled with the last time you saw him? He always loved you and knows you felt the same. That woman sitting opposite you on the train? She secretly fancies you and is just waiting for you to make the first move. That guy on the seat over there, acting like a jerk? He can bring joy to people’s live through the magic of laughter. The colleague you’ve never met? She is prepared to give up her career to do the right thing by you. But what about her asshole boss? Well, even he can be quietly circumvented. Everything is fine. As Bill Hicks used to say: “Go back to sleep, America.”
The perfect ending for the film is the one Jones almost gave us: a freeze-frame of Stevens and Warren kissing which pulls back to reveal everyone in the train vacuously open-mouthed, caught mid-laugh. That the character cheerfully conducting this scene is a reality TV star with multiple convictions for drink-driving (played by comedian Russell Peters) tells you a lot about the film’s starry-eyed view of humanity. This would be a saccharine but appropriate ending for a film so obsessed with accentuating the positive and ignoring the big picture but Jones overreaches to add a coda: a final image of the happy couple posing in front of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture. An image which, the audience now realize, has been flickering through Stevens’s brain as he loops back each time. You could say that Jones is straining for the Christopher Nolan effect here—that final linking moment that draws the film together and leaves the audience on a manipulative high—but he simply hasn’t pulled it off. Perhaps he needed a better score. Instead we are left to believe that everything that has happened in Source Code was simply destined to be and Stevens and Warren were fated to walk off into the sunset together.
Which is nice.
Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He is the current reviews editor for Vector, and blogs at Everything Is Nice.