At its worst, a high concept film can go one of two ways: either it can concentrate too much on its ideas, becoming self-indulgent, pretentious, and not dramatically engaging enough; or it can focus too much on creating thrills, producing a vacuous and unsatisfying experience as a result.
'Source Code', a gripping, fairly smart Sci-Fi thriller, comes close to finding a much more balanced middle ground between these two tendencies. Director Duncan Jones, whose critically acclaimed debut feature 'Moon' dealt with similar themes of paranoia and identity, has his eyes squarely on creating a piece of entertainment; but one that is still thought provoking enough to make it’s story resonate well after its 93 minutes of running time are over.
Jake Gyllenhaal, as US helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens, is tasked with inhabiting the body of a passenger aboard a Chicago bound train eight minutes before it explodes, in order to identify the train’s bomber and avert another imminent attack. Forced by his military bosses to re-live the mans last moments over and over again to look for different clues each time, Colter also tries to unravel the mystery surrounding his involvement in the mission itself.
Following in the tradition of films like 'eXistenZ', 'The Matrix', and 'Inception', it deals with the nature of reality, touching on time travel, and the possibility of parallel worlds. But the film never gets bogged down in examining the intellectual architecture that supports its story. Instead it allows its ideas to emerge as the plot develops. Indeed, we are not even made aware of the nature of the technology that allows Coulter to enter another mans body until well after he has already embarked on his mission.
What we are treated to instead is an engaging, suspense driven drama which still manages to pose questions about predestination and freewill. With fate seemingly against him Colter becomes besotted by Michelle Monaghan’s Christina, a fellow passenger onboard the doomed train, and tries desperately to save her.
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The script cleverly makes the development of their relationship seem plausible by having Christina already quite taken by the man whose body Colter inhabits. While Colter’s growing interest in Christina follows a more conventional developmental trajectory, it nevertheless makes sense given the nature of her humane character and the knowledge he has of her eventual demise. His love for her steams from a sort of sorrow he feels for a beautiful and promising life cut short by a murderous, nonsensical act of violence; a notion which is likely to have resonance in an age overly familiar with acts of terrorism.
Both central performances are effective, with Gyllenhaal whipping up another slice of the vulnerability he had on display in 'Donnie Darko', and Monaghan exuding just enough delicate charm to avoid the roles inherent potential for soppy annoyance. Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright, as Coulter’s military bosses, do well given the limitations their respective parts present; Farmiga is largely confined to performing in close up, her face appearing on a small video monitor beamed into Coulter’s time travelling pod; and Wright is stuck with the hammy role of mad scientist.
Despite the action being largely restricted spatially and temporally to the confines of a train over a period of eight minutes, Jones manages to generate enough suspense and excitement through the varied ways in which he re-presents the same scenario. Coulter, by changing his actions each time, runs into a different series of obstacles, much like the player of a computer game who is given multiple attempts to complete a particular level.
With the films commitment to entertaining its audience without failing to focus on its central ideas, 'Source Code' should satisfy anyone who believes that cerebral films don’t have to be dull, and that fun films don’t have to be dumb.
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