Source Code movie review
|REVIEWS - MOVIES|
Finally, a film that gets to the source of good sci-fi...
A heightened atmosphere of panic and anxiety always provides a fertile place for good sci-fi to blossom. Without the intense paranoia of the cold war blanketing the world like shadows around a Communist, Philip K. Dick would not have been able to tell such powerful and moving stories; without the framework of suspicion and alienation that was built by the seemingly inevitable nuclear horrors to come, his stories of blasted future landscapes and cities brought to their knees by strange interlopers might have never been written.
As we lurch into this age of terror and dread, we can at least cling to the hope that our own personal Kafkaesque nightmare – mindless security procedures, limits imposed on rights to protest and intense suspicion of anyone with more melanin than those two albino twins in The Matrix Reloaded – will at least engender some decent stories before we shuffle despondently towards Armageddon.
That’s not to say that an atmosphere of petrified anguish will automatically turn an otherwise terrible sci-fi offering into pure gold. Blaming terrorists, cyber- or otherwise, is cheap and ineffective shorthand - a cheat’s way to cry “Look out! Danger!” whilst providing some ersatz cultural relevance to cynical, focus-tested pap. It’s a sin compounded by the heavy-handed ‘satire’ that tends to accompany such mercilessly wretched pieces of fiction (see my Zombies of Mass Destruction review, here, for these sentiments stretched over a thousand words).
It was this fear that I had in mind when asked to review Source Code, the latest offering by Moon director Duncan Jones. With a name like Source Code I was fully prepared for a hundred minutes of unconvincing ‘hacking’ action, interspersed with asinine quotes of the “It’s got into the binary! Reverse the feed loop!” ilk.
Thankfully, Source Code avoids this horrendous pitfall, instead offering the viewer a clever techno-thriller with a unique central conceit.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot serving in Afghanistan who wakes up to find himself surrounded by strangers on a train bound for Chicago. After making the somewhat unsettling discovery that the body he’s moving around in is not his own, his existential anguish is cut short as a massive explosion rips through the train. He opens his eyes to discover that he’s acting as part of a top secret military program known as ‘Source Code’, which allows him to re-live the last eight minutes of the disaster through someone else’s body.
His shadowy military overseers send him back to the train to discover the identity of the locomotive-averse bomber and, like an unholy bastard child of Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap, Stevens must re-live the bombing time and time again in order to identify the culprit and avert a greater disaster.
This almost videogame-like structure – attempt, fail, restart; attempt, fail, restart – offers a refreshingly different frame from which to hang the plot and a clever way to ramp up tension. With each trip back to the train, Stevens gets closer to discovering the bomber, only to be pulled back out of the simulation as the bomb is triggered. Simultaneously, mystery builds around the motives of those in control of his mission, as well as the nature of the simulator itself: each time it appears that a discovery is about to be made, Stevens is thrust back into the simulation. If improperly handled, this method of escalation could have very easily spoiled all pace generated by the film. Rest assured that this is not the case – the reveals are paced so well that the tension becomes all but unbearable.
As Stevens slowly pieces together what’s going on, the film takes a turn for the genuinely sinister.
Grotesque and tragic revelations are made which raise interesting questions about freedom, responsibility and moral agency. To say any more than this would be to risk spoiling some tremendous twists; put simply, the film takes some wonderfully dark turns. Even the ending, at first glance an exercise in mawkish sentimentality, is shot through with subtle cruelty and sly ambiguity.
Source Code is a clever, witty and original movie with the sort of bleak undercurrent that would have made Philip K. Dick proud. Our paranoia may march us to our doom, but at least it’ll entertain us on the way.
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