Finishing a film, or any form of story, is an art in and of itself. A knockout finale can sometimes redeem a mediocre film and a weak ending can sometimes make it impossible to enjoy an otherwise likeable film. Source Code is one example of a film that, despite never reaching the greatness of its ambitions, is perfectly fine until its overstretched and melodramatic ending comes along and ruins it all.
My experience with Duncan Jones’s first film Moon made me believe that the originality of his vision in giving a human side to a sci-fi story and his technical wizardry in creating awe-inspiring visual effects on a modest budget could be capitalized on if he was given a bigger kitty and studio power. I didn’t realize, in my naivete, that with this studio money would come Hollywood’s mandatory requirement that the film should be a marketable crowd pleaser, that the emotional punch of Moon should become a gratuitous love story, and that the impeccably designed details of the interior of the lunar base would be swapped with noisier, but far less fetching CGI explosions.
Source Code begins with Jake Gyllenhaal, as Captain Colter Stevens, sitting across a young woman (later revealed to be Christina, played by Michelle Monaghan) on a train to Chicago. He doesn’t know why he’s there or why the woman repeatedly calls her Sean. Before he can settle into his surroundings, the train explodes and he wakes up in a dark and cold room, chained to his seat. Then he hears and through a screen sees Goodwin, a female military agent played by Vera Farmiga, who asks him questions about the train and only vaguely informs him of his situation. Despite Stevens’ pleas to contact his father, he’s sent back onto the train to investigate the location of the bomb that caused the explosion.
The system is later revealed to be called Source Code – a platform that allows a person to go back in time for an eight minute period, not to alter the events but to simply observe and report. Goodwin and her supervising agent Rutledge (played by Jeffrey Wright) are hoping to prevent another bomb attack in downtown Chicago by sending Stevens back to the train enough times so he eventually finds who the bomber is.
The logic of this system may be dubious, and Rutledge’s haphazard scientific explanation of its inner workings doesn’t help one bit, but we can allow science fiction cinema that much dramatic license. It is fiction after all. In fact, the whole process of the investigation is kind of fun to watch. Jake Gyllenhaal lends such charisma and emotional authenticity to his character that makes him worth pursuing. His gradually increasing chemistry with Michelle Monaghan and his impulsive, if slightly overacted humour give Source Code a human soul that almost saves the film from its undercooked plot and its weak CGI effects. For most of the film, his presence has the strength of a true movie star, promising that if he didn’t trap himself in rubbish like Prince of Persia and Love and other Drugs and did more of Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain he’d be one of the strongest actors of this generation.
On par with Gyllenhaal’s star turn is Vera Farmiga, who can really make a film worth watching with her eyes only, but here does much more than that by adding layers to a role that didn’t require her to do so at all. Unlike Jeffrey Wright, whose mechanical line readings – meant to exaggerate his stubborn and tough attitude I assume – feel like they’re straight out of a bad 60s science fiction TV show, Farmiga adds a much needed depth to her parts of the film with her warm attitude and quietly strong performance. Michelle Monaghan, too, plays her part really well in creating the chemistry that would actually force Stevens to want to go back and save her. One of the strengths of the film is that unlike many other science fictions, the hero doesn’t arbitrarily just fall for a girl because he has to. Monaghan’s performance makes Christina worth the storyline.
But all the problems with the film would have been forgiven if it hadn’t drifted apart completely in its third act. Source Code spends a great deal of time focusing on finding the bomber and as a result never pays much attention to the logic of the source code, which is a good thing in my opinion, given that the logic doesn’t really give the filmmakers much to work with. The problem starts when they try to change the rules they’ve set for themselves at the end. When Stevens asks for the first time how he can go back on the train and save the lives of the passengers, Wright flatly refuses and tells him that the source code is not designed to allow that. Why then, would the filmmakers decide to bend their rules and carry on long after the resolution has come is beyond me? Wouldn’t the film have been much better off with an ending that complied with the source code logic? Even worse is the drastic shift from the pulsating action to the gratuitous romance at the end. Why does Hollywood always see the need to reward a romance with a union and a kiss? Even though the film ends almost right at the 90 minute mark, the ending still feels incredibly long, only because Stevens’ explanation of the actual capabilities of the source code, his email to Goodwin, and his/Sean’s walk with Christina are so unnecessary.
In the end, Source Code falls short of being a satisfying action film, only because so much happens after its climax and so unbelievable are the rationalizations that they don’t allow the film to go out with a bang. It falls short of a good romantic film too because despite the chemistry, this romance is much more suited to the background of the story. The anticlimactic ending also spoils the dramatic effect that a similar but more plausible finale could have had, and the ethical questions raised are never properly answered either. But the film’s biggest problem is that for all its clever plotting and original ideas, it still falls victim to all typical genre trappings, something that Jones had smartly avoided in Moon.
He’s obviously showed great potential to become an important voice in sci-fi cinema. He knows how to create tension and he knows how to bring a humanist identity to the sci-fi world. Now the word is that he’s in talks to direct Wolverine. Frankly, he could be a great replacement for Aronofsky, but I’d be much happier if he went back to doing another small project with a compelling, twisted and original story.