The Magazine

Dead Reckoning

‘Strangers on a Train’ meets ‘Donovan’s Brain.’

Apr 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Source Code
Directed by Duncan Jones

Source Code

Last week I wrote about Limitless, a present-day science-fiction movie with a thrilling premise incompetently executed. A few weeks before, I wrote about The Adjustment Bureau, a present-day science-fiction movie with a haunting premise intriguingly executed. Now we have Source Code, a present-day science-fiction movie with an incomprehensible premise brilliantly executed.

You’re not going to find a more entertaining movie these days than Source Code, despite the fact that you are unlikely to make much sense of its central conceit. Lord knows I couldn’t, but it’s my job to try, so here goes. When a person dies, his brain activity continues for eight minutes (or so the movie says). Theoretically, another person’s consciousness could somehow be downloaded into, and take the place of, the dead person’s consciousness for those
eight minutes.

But what the downloaded person will experience is not the eight minutes after death but rather the final eight minutes of the dead person’s life. In the course of that eight-minute span, the downloaded person will be able to move and talk and think and interact with others. But since all he’s experiencing is the dead person’s memory, the downloaded person can’t actually change the past. But he might be able to learn something about what happened to the dead person during those eight minutes.

I’m not making Source Code sound like anything you might want to see, am I? But you really do, because what screenwriter Ben Ripley and director Duncan Jones (who was born to a glitter-rock-star father in 1971 and given the once-infamous birth name of Zowie Bowie) pull off here is actually quite wonderful.

The beauty of Source Code is all in the telling. The movie takes place in three settings. There is a commuter train chugging from the suburbs into Chicago, which will blow up in eight minutes. There is a makeshift military command center at Nellis AFB in Nevada manned by Capt. Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga, in an amazingly layered performance). And there is a flight-simulation capsule in which Air Force Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself after spending eight minutes on the train inside the body and brain of one of the passengers before experiencing the train’s destruction.

The explosion is the work of a terrorist on board the train. Goodwin tells Stevens that his job is to find out the identity of the bomber because they know somehow that if he is not stopped the bomber is going to detonate a dirty bomb in the center of Chicago a few hours later.

She keeps sending Stevens back to relive those final eight minutes through the eyes of the dead passenger, and each time he comes to see and learn a bit more about the other passengers—one in particular, a luminous seatmate named Christina (Michelle Monaghan).

He becomes convinced he can save her, even though Goodwin’s boss—a fascinatingly ambiguous scientific genius played marvelously by Jeffrey Wright—explains to Stevens that he is only living through a memory. The past is fixed. He cannot change it.

The interactions inside the train car, and between the encapsuled Stevens and Goodwin, and between Goodwin and her boss, are what give the movie its remarkable heart. In quick, bold strokes, Source Code makes all these people seem very vivid and real and the dynamics between them believable and honest.

Most impressively (this was true of The Adjustment Bureau as well) Source Code succeeds in offering an enchanting portrait of two people falling in love in about a minute’s time. We know they are doomed to be separated forever by fate, and we are eager to see them cheat it. But what really makes Source Code work is the soulful performance of Jake Gyllenhaal, a pretty-boy actor who has never done much for me. Gyllenhaal must play clever, confused, angry, and aware that something terrible is going on he can’t make sense of all at once, and proves masterly at it.

So go see Source Code. But please note how odd it is that three similar “what-if” movies have been released on successive weekends—a “what if you could use all of your brain” story in Limitless, a “what if God didn’t want you to marry your beloved” story in The Adjustment Bureau, and this “what if you had eight minutes to occupy someone else’s body and stop a terrorist attack.”

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