Having knocked the sci-fi world for six with his critically-lauded debut, Moon, back in 2009, anticipation and speculation has continued to build around whether or not Duncan Jones is merely a one-trick pony or this generation’s Ridley Scott. With his second feature Source Code (2011) hitting the cinemas this week, we’re finally able to answer that question.
This is normally the part of any review where it’s the job of the writer to outline the plot and give the viewing public an idea of what to expect before parting with the pennies at their local cinema. However, I’m a little reluctant to give anything away about Source Code. It’s a film which is far more enjoyable if you haven’t the foggiest what to expect, but, that said, I’d be remiss in my duties as a film writer if I didn’t give you something.
The story follows captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a US Army helicopter pilot, who mysteriously wakes up on a Chicago-bound train with no memory of how he got there or what he’s supposed to do. As the film unfolds, Captain Stevens finds that he’s actually part of an experimental, new anti-terrorism program known as ‘Source Code’ and that thousands of lives depend on the success of his mission.
Jones has followed a similar style to that adopted in Moon: we’re talking mind-bending, high-concept sci-fi. As with his prior feature, the plot is very character driven, with the director’s role more an observation of the main protagonist’s reaction to the bizarre, sci-fi elements than a study on those concepts themselves. While some recent sci-fi offerings like Inception (2010) seem to revel in just how ‘clever’ they are, and are more pre-occupied with exploring their big ideas than their characters, Jones flips trend this around.
Whilst the ideas and concepts under-pinning Source Code are no less difficult to grasp than Inception’s, this is a film that feels ‘smart’ without desperately trying to be so. The characters are few and the settings limited, such that complex ideas can peacefully exist inside the film, without tying the narrative in knots. Make no mistake, Jones hasn’t dumbed things down, we’re looking at the business end of theoretical physics and fistful of existentialist philosophy to boot. The clarity comes in observing these ideas from just one or two frames of reference, whilst stripping away all the flashy ‘whiz, pops and bangs’ that only really distract from your core plot.
Gyllenhaal continues to prove his quality as an actor and is more than capable of holding audience attention by himself for the duration of the film. While there are other supporting roles, right from scene one we know who it is we’re following. It’s not a drama, and there’s a fair few stunts and special effects going on, but nothing too distracting or self indulgent.
Jones has made it past that difficult second act; no mean feat considering the reception his previous film was met with. He might not have raised his game with this picture – I honestly couldn’t tell you which I prefer between this and Moon – but he’s certainly not dropped the ball. We could be looking at a future big-hitter of the sci-fi industry here and the next great icon of the sci-fi genre.
Certainly far more modest about its ostensibly cerebral subject matter than a variety of other recent blockbusters, Source Code really is a thinking man’s sci-fi.