The trailers and promos for Duncan Jones's second film Source Code seemed to suggest a very familiar narrative. Not for the film, that is, but for Jones's career. First, an arty, idiosyncratic film to establish his credentials among critics and science fiction fans alike. Then, a bankable, formulaic action flick with SFnal touches to prove to the Hollywood money people that Jones could be relied on to rein in his artistic impulses and put seats in the movie theater. That Source Code has turned out to be an enjoyable, somewhat intelligent and competently made film while still hewing closely to the more conventional blockbuster format suggested by its marketing is gratifying, but not very surprising--it mainly means that Jones is closer to being another Christopher Nolan than another Richard Kelly. What is surprising, however--especially given that Jones has only directed the film, while the script is credited to Ben Ripley--is just how many similarities there are between Source Code and Jones's debut Moon. Both are focused on a single individual, a man engaged in grueling, repetitive labor whose hoped-for reward is described in terms so hazy that it comes to seem metaphysical. In both films the protagonist discovers that he is not what he thinks he is, and that his nature enables his handlers to view him as expendable and unworthy of compassion. Both men nevertheless manage to win over one of their handlers, and with their help they make their escape into a world that is uncertain but nevertheless offers them more freedom than their life before--but not before making sure that others of their kind are given the same opportunity.
In Source Code, the hero is Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal, demonstrating once again how a pair of soulful blue eyes can turn a conventionally handsome, perhaps even callow face surprisingly transparent and vulnerable), a helicopter pilot flying sorties in Afghanistan for the US Air Force, who suddenly finds himself on a passenger train, meeting an unfamiliar face in the mirror and being addressed as Sean by his fellow commuter Christina (Michelle Monaghan, bubbly and charming to just the right degree). No sooner has he started to get his bearings than the train explodes, and Colter finds himself in what looks vaguely like a helicopter cockpit, being addressed through video transmissions. Though he insists that he has no memory of how he got here from Afghanistan, Colter is informed by his handlers, Air Force officer Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and civilian scientist Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) that he is part of a top-secret anti-terrorism project called Source Code. Using Rutledge's technology, he can relive the last eight minutes before the explosion again and again, using them to discover the identity of the bomber and prevent another bombing that Goodwin and Rutledge insist is imminent.
It's pretty easy to guess just what vital piece of information is being held back from Colter, and to the film's credit it doesn't wait very long before revealing that he is, essentially, a brain in a box, having been shot down and very nearly killed in Afghanistan several months before the film's events. Colter is thus faced with several challenges on top of identifying the bomber (which he anyway takes a rather desultory approach towards, letting several iterations of the explosion go by before kicking his investigation into gear and discovering he perpetrator on his first serious attempt). He has to convince Goodwin and Rutledge that he is a person and not a tool, and thus that he deserves respect and the chance for self-determination, which in his case means the right to die. He has to deal with the trauma of experiencing death multiple times on the train, while coming to terms with the fact of his death in Afghanistan, even as he falls in love with Christina. Finally, he has to fight for the chance to prevent the train explosion rather than simply identifying the bomber, insisting over Goodwin and Rutledge's objections that what he is experiencing isn't a mere simulation.
Despite the similarities between their situations, one crucial difference between Colter and Moon's Sam determines the shape and meaning of their stories--Colter is a soldier. Moon's plot could be taken--and we were encouraged to take it so--as the story of an individual being exploited by a corporation for the sake of financial gain. The original Sam Bell did his tour on the moon, collected his salary, and went on with his life, unaware that his clones continued to labor with no compensation, either to him or to themselves. Colter's exploitation, however, is a less clear-cut evil. Soldiers accept that the nation has the right to ask them to make incredible sacrifices, up to and including giving their lives. The question that Source Code asks is whether it's right for the nation to ask its soldiers to make sacrifices even beyond that last full measure of devotion, and more generally, where the correct point of balance is between the needs of the state and the needs of the soldier. As soon as he regains consciousness, and especially after he realizes that he is dead, Colter is preoccupied with making contact with his father, with whom he'd quarreled over his decision to return to Afghanistan for a third tour. There's an obvious parallel to be drawn between Colter's willingness to return to the danger of a war zone--and his superiors' willingness to send him there--and the constant repetition of the train explosion. Just as his father insisted on Colter's right to rest from battle, Colter insists on his right to rest in death, making Source Code the latest in a long line of works that equate the soldier's much-deserved rest after the tumult and peril of battle with the peaceful rest of death.
Which is why Source Code's greatest flaw is its choice to make Rutledge both a civilian and the film's villain. Much more than the actual bomber, who doesn't end up posing much of a challenge to Colter, Rutledge is Colter's antagonist. Unlike Goodwin, who warms to Colter and bonds with him over their shared service (when Rutledge refuses to confirm that Colter has died, Colter persuades Goodwin to do so by asking her "one soldier to another"), Rutledge has no concern for Colter's wishes and desires. Despite promising to let Colter die at the end of the mission, he plans to erase his memory and keep him on life support, and refuses to let Colter go back one last time to prevent the train bombing, insisting that this would have no real-world effect. The film could easily have made Rutledge an ambiguous figure--his motives, preventing a terrorist bombing and creating a powerful new tool in the war against terror, are after all honorable, even if his methods are questionable--and if he, like Goodwin, were an officer then he could have credibly represented the opposing viewpoint to her stance that there is a limit to what the state may demand of its soldiers. Instead, the film delights in portraying Rutledge as callous and even cruel, not only unsympathetic to Colter's distress, but disrespectful of his bravery and sacrifice. This disrespect, the film strongly implies, is rooted in the fact that Rutledge is a civilian--when he glibly tells Colter that many soldiers would jump at the chance to give more than one life for their country, Colter's response is that Rutledge must never have been in battle, because soldiers who have been would say that "one death is enough"--and the film plays up to many of the stereotypes that crop up when fiction confronts brave soldiers with craven civilians, making Rutledge a grotesque. Rutledge walks with a crutch, and Wright makes of that disability something profoundly unattractive, wheezing and gasping for breath. Rutledge thus presents an image of offputting sickness which the film can then contrast with Colter's attractive virility--a virility that is entirely illusory, since Colter is nothing but a torso on life support. This, of course, plays up another war movie cliché, that of the maimed soldier who is still more of a man than the whole--or in this case, nearly whole--civilian.
If Source Code ends up disappointing as a war movie, it is much more successful, though not perfectly so, as a science fiction film. I was particularly impressed with how the film thought through the implications of Colter's predicament, the slow revelation of the fact that the impassioned exchanges we see him have with Goodwin and Rutledge take place almost entirely in his head, while their conversation with him is mediated by impersonal technology (though I wish the film hadn't waited so long to reveal, for example, that Goodwin can't hear Colter's voice or see his face, because this goes a long way towards explaining why she and Rutledge can so easily fail to empathize with Colter, and why only she comes to see him as a person). Even more important is the nature of the source code, which turns out, as Colter keeps insisting over Rutledge's dismissal, to be much more than a simulation. The film appears to end when Colter, having gone back to the train one last time and prevented the bombing, arranges the last minutes of his life to be perfect, saying goodbye to his father and confessing his feelings to Christina. As they kiss, the image freezes, and Colter appears to have gotten his desired rest. But this turns out to be false bottom--the film restarts, and Colter realizes that he's created an alternate universe in which the train never exploded and he is free to live out the rest of his life (albeit in another man's body). I've seen complaints that the "freeze frame" ending is the better one of the two, and though I agree that it would have been a good stopping point, it's the film's real ending that makes it truly SFnal. The revelation of the source code's true nature elevates it from a quasi-magical McGuffin to something genuinely scary and momentous, and the film's final moments, in which the alternate universe's Goodwin receives a message from Colter and understands the true power of the source code, have the feeling of teetering on the edge of a brave and terrifying new world. It must be said, however, that the film doesn't fully engage with the technology's implications; if Colter's final iteration created an alternate universe then so did all his previous, failed attempts, in each of which the Source Code project would have been activated, which would have created even more alternate universes, and so on and so on.
Source Code, then, is an underbaked war movie and a slightly wobbly science fiction film. What's left is an entertaining and occasionally moving SFnal action flick that is smarter and more thought-through than it has any business being, and refreshingly uninterested in wowing us with explosions and special effects. There's been a mini-glut of low-budget science fiction films from major studios recently (Skyline, Limitless, Battle: Los Angeles, The Adjustment Bureau), and though I don't yet know how Source Code stacks up (and am anyway only planning to see the last of the four) I think that trend is something to celebrate in itself. A wider field means more chances for quality to accidentally make its way to the screens, and lower budgets put less pressure on filmmakers to stick slavishly to proven, and brain-dead, formulas. For both science fiction films and Duncan Jones, then, Source Code is a promising sign of things to come.