Jakes on a Train
'A cross between Groundhog Day and Murder on the Orient Express.'
Oh, good grief. It's enough to make you swear off CNN (the source of that particular critical gem) for life. Okay, folks, in the wake of all this 'It's Bourne meets Inception' and 'Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day' nonsense, that was the final straw. Henceforth if you ever catch me describing a film in such a lazy, mechanical and –honestly – inaccurate way, shout at me, because I've had enough.
Normally I try to steer clear of other peoples' opinions when choosing what to see in my weekly trip to the cinema. I mean, if you have any ambition to write film reviews with something like integrity (don't start) you have to leave your preconceptions and prejudices at the door (not that I'm actually aware of anyone who's completely successful at this).
Here's the deal. I was put off going to see Duncan Jones' Source Code by the trailer, which doesn't do the film any favours. I thought it came across looking like another high-concept middle-budget Phil Dick pastiche, with hefty dollops of stuff derived from other bits of TV and movie SF. And I've seen enough of those, ta. This week I was going to see… er… a certain other movie, which had the virtues of at least looking original, and being directed by someone whose previous movies I've all really enjoyed (well, I didn't bother seeing the one about the owls, but…). However. The certain other movie has received unanimously toxic reviews, while everyone's raving about Source Code. It was time for a change of plan.
In the movie Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a US serviceman who wakes up to find himself on a train in Illinois. But on the train Stevens is not Stevens: his wallet is that of a man named Fentress, and on looking in the mirror he sees a face he doesn't recognise. It's as if he's been teleported into another man's life without anyone noticing, not even Fentress's closest friend on the train, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Before he can even make sense of all this, a bomb blows the train apart and kills them both–-
– and Stevens finds himself suspended in a dark, but oddly familiar space. A woman in military uniform (Vera Farmiga), under the command of a spiky boffin (Jeffrey Wright), is giving orders to him via a computer screen. Suddenly he finds himself waking up on the train again, the events leading up to the bombing replaying inexorably.
And the film continues from there, filling in information about both the train bombing and Stevens' own predicament as it goes (the latter turns out to be at least as grim as the former). One really shouldn't say too much about the plot, for fear of spoiling the journey into understanding which is really at the heart of this film.
As a piece of proper SF, Source Code's credentials are dubious at best: as the main scientist on display, Wright's character is clearly an expert in bafflegab and gobbledegook. The reason it's called Source Code at all is an aesthetic one: in the context of the story it's a punchy, slightly mysterious name for a ludicrous piece of pseudo-scientific invention. Retro-Cognitive Psycho-Projectron would probably be a more logical and honest title, but the studio wouldn't allow them to put that on a poster.
However, as a thriller with a big fantastical high-concept at its heart, Source Code is exemplary. Jones' control of time and space is excellent: it's not until after the film that you realise most of the story occurs in only three or four locations, none of them particularly sizeable, and the repeated visits to the train in the minutes before the blast never actually seem repetitive. Were he still around, I think Hitchcock would have relished the challenge of operating within such strictures: and I think he would approve of Jones' work here.
There are inevitably shades of Groundhog Day here, but only very faint ones. I was put rather more in mind of Jonathan Heap's 1990 short film 12:01PM (the makers of this film decided not to sue the makers of the more famous movie for plagiarism, so I'm certainly not going to suggest Groundhog Day ripped it off), in which a man finds himself trapped in a short-period time-loop with no means of escape, and the tone is much harder and darker. Source Code has something of the same quality of an endlessly recurring nightmare, particularly in its middle section.
On the other hand, there are numerous clues in Source Code, some of them obvious, some quite deeply buried, which indicate that the makers consider themselves mainly in debt to the late-80s-early-90s-liberal-angst-a-thon TV series Quantum Leap, although this story is much darker than anything that show ever made.
Source Code's sources are basically immaterial, anyway, as this film manages to transcend them and become something quite new and original. Comparisons with the likes of Inception strike me as overgenerous : this film isn't quite so technically dazzling, and it's not intended to be a puzzle or particularly ambiguous in its ending, and any debates on that subject will almost certainly be the result of people not properly paying attention to the climax.
In the end, I'm very happy to have seen Source Code, although it didn't quite live up to the expectations all those glowing testimonials had left me with. Had I gone to see it cold, I expect I might be even more impressed than I am. As it is, I think it's a brilliant exercise in storytelling, well-played and actually quite moving throughout. And I suspect it's at least twice as smart as most of the films that'll be released to cinemas this year. Recommended.