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Zach Manges
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Tight thriller brightens spring film gloom
May 7, 2011

Directed by: Duncan Jones

Release date: 2011

Length: 93 minutes

Rating: PG-13

Spring is traditionally the time of year when the flowers begin to blossom and movies of questionable quality are released. A nice counterpoint is Source Code is a refreshingly clever and thrilling sci-fi treat. It is not revolutionary, and it is far from flawless, but it satisfied me with its gripping action, relatable characters and tightly wrapped mystery.

Source Code tells the story of Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot who finds himself mysteriously involved in an experimental government program in which he is able to  relive the final minutes of a recently deceased person. After a train is bombed, killing all onboard, Stevens is forced to tap into the last eight minutes of one passenger’s life, over and over, Groundhog Day-style, in an effort to discover the identity of the bomber before he strikes again. At the same time, he tries to figure out how he became involved in this secretive operation in the first place.

The performances of the film are subtle and persuasive, which is quite an accomplishment considering how ridiculous the subject matter is.  I haven’t seen much of Gyllenhaal’s acting, but after this nuanced performance, I’m definitely interested in seeing his other films.  He underplays his lines when necessary, and an impressive amount of character development gets done in low whispers and surprised faces as Stevens fights a silent, mental war with a criminal mastermind, devising new ways to track him down.

Stevens’ love interest, Christina, is played by Michelle Monaghan. I wasn’t particularly convinced of the romance between the pair, but I give Monaghan credit for trying just as hard as Gyllenhaal to sell a real, breathing character, not just a cardboard cut-out in a thriller film. The dozen or so doomed passengers whom we get to know through Stevens’ interactions with the soon-to-be-deceased man inject some humor into the film. The actors portraying the government agents who instruct Stevens through his mission seem a bit over the top with their overzealous line delivery, especially Jeffrey Wright as head of the operation, but they fit into the tension-filled context of the story well enough that that’s forgivable.

The actual mystery of the film is perhaps its greatest selling point. Viewers considering whether or not to see this flick would be robbed of most of the movie’s value by prematurely learning how it all turns out. The sheer fun of trying to unravel the mystery a few steps ahead of the characters kept me hooked. Best of all, most of my mid-movie predictions ended up being wrong, so I was able to enjoy several legitimate surprises.

That said, the movie’s main flaw comes during its endgame. Once Stevens discovers the identity of the bomber, the tension, which was so taut and finely crafted, fizzles out to nothing. Instead, we are subject to one of the most absurd stretches of sci-fi lore I have yet experienced in cinema. Viewers are asked to accept way too many garbled philosophical conventions in way too little time. As a result, I found it very difficult to take the film seriously, or care about the characters, during the closing scenes.  It’s as if the director was determined to impose a fairy-tale ending, and I was unable to continue suspending belief, no matter how I tried.

Nevertheless, the film still stands as an engaging and smart sci-fi/mystery hybrid.  It’s impossible not to like the characters a little, and the puzzle of the plot is an absolute pleasure to crack. The ending prevents the movie from achieving greatness, but it still satisfied my “thriller movie” itch during an otherwise dull cinematic month. For that, I'd give it 8.5 out of 10 stars.

Copyright 2011 Y-Press

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