Hollywood science-fiction is often far from scientific or thoughtful. The emphasis has long been on action sequences, A-list actors, and big budget special effects. Most of these films tend to not contain much in the way of coherent plot or character exploration—the focus is always on the experience, not the substance. This is why I took interest in the 2011 film Source Code, which in some ways went against the grain.
Directed by Duncan Jones (who had previously helmed his Sam Rockwell starring debut, Moon), it at first appears to be quite similar to typical Hollywood fare: Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the lead, Michelle Monaghan as his love interest, and the film contains “science” that would look implausible to a small child. Science-fiction does not necessarily have to be about science, however, as the late Roger Ebert would agree. I will credit Source Code for being written and acted out by a cast and crew who know just how silly the whole thing is, and rather than try to justify it self-consciously, they run with it. Due to the relatively small $32 million budget, there is less of an emphasis on action scenes, which works to the film’s benefit.
Source Code opens with our lead, Captain Colter Stevens, waking up on a train. He has no memory of how he got there, he doesn’t know the woman sitting across from his seat, and he is just as confused as anyone would be when he comes to discover that he’s not even in his own body as he gazes into another man’s face in a mirror. It isn’t long before a bomb detonates, causing the train to explode. The film plays out as he assumes the identity of the man whose body he inhabits, that of schoolteacher Sean Fentress, as he uses a new, untested technology called the “source code” which allows him to go back into the memory of Fentress during the last eight minutes of his life to figure out just who detonated the bomb to prevent a terrorist attack on Chicago.
The film serves as a competently written thriller. Each character on the train is given a solid reason for why they may or may not have been the bomber. As Stevens only has eight minutes to find the bomber, he often has to go back to the beginning, interviewing each potential subject. Each scenario ends quite differently from the one before it, keeping things from getting too redundant. Intrigue abounds and the suspense never lightens, even if, like me, you quickly figure out the bomber’s identity.
The performances by the actors are quite good. Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of his best performances, perfectly showing his anger, confusion, compassion, and regret; the script helps him, crafting Colter Stevens to be a legitimately well-rounded character, who responds to his environment in believable ways, with a solid backstory and motivation. Michelle Monaghan may be in a relatively limiting role as the love interest, but she makes do with what she has and brings a likability and friendliness to her character. My favorite performances, other than Gyllenhaal's, were from Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright. Though they spend most of the movie inside their offices, mainly answering Stevens’s questions, they turn out to have their own agendas and character agency.
Perhaps my one complaint with the film would be the ending. The film looks to end on a freeze-frame shot, which would have allowed it to have the picturesque Hollywood happily ever after, while also concluding the story in a way that wouldn’t have felt contrived. Instead, the story continues in a way that doesn’t feel quite so satisfying, throwing a curve-ball at the viewer that, while it wraps up some of the potential “what happened to this character?” questions, it also created new plot holes.
But is it science-fiction? I would say it fits somewhere on the softest setting on the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness. The science is not even remotely scientific, but I’d say it would qualify as a form of old school social science-fiction. While the plot wouldn’t work without the “source code” technology, it’s not explained in such a way that it’s the point of the story; it is only a means to an end. Rather, the narrative, while plot-driven, focuses primarily on the implications of what using such a technology would mean for its users.
In summary, Source Code is a Hollywood film that lives up to its premise: well-acted, sound direction, competent script, only really let down by its ending. As it stands, this is a good film to show someone who feels the most important element of science-fiction is that it be “plausible” that not being scientific can still lead to a solidly crafted story.
Score: 4/5 or 8/10