In less than a year, three films have been released that have been profoundly influenced by the style and structure of (rather than adapted from) computer games. If anything, it is a cinematic trend that is overdue, in the wake of the likes of Tron and The Matrix in the 80s and 90s. Following last summer’s Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which transferred the plotting and aesthetics of video games to the big screen, Source Code is reminiscent of the kind of game where you have to complete a mission; if you die, the level resets and you have to start all over again, trying to master the level based on your prior knowledge of the behaviour of the non-player characters. In the plot of this film, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character starts ‘the level’ believing that he is in a simulation where he has eight minutes to discover the identity of a bomber on a train. Between each attempt he wakes up in the cockpit of a crashed helicopter and tries to work out why he can’t escape this environment. As the film progresses, we discover the truth about the two worlds between which he moves and the nature of his interaction with military personnel, who are communicating with him via video screen.
In other hands, this could have been a dull ‘Channel 5′ action film, but with Gyllenhaal wringing the maximum amount of emotional potential out of his time-and-body-displaced hero, and with compelling direction by Duncan Jones, the team lift the material out of its familiar genre trappings into something more intriguing and moving than you might expect. Gyllenhaal has made a career of looking slightly perplexed in unusual situations - from playing the disturbed eschatological lead in Donnie Darko to a gay rancher in Brokeback Mountain - and his endearing performances help the audience to accept the outré scenarios he often finds himself cast in.
For Jones, this movie is the cinematic equivalent of ‘the difficult second album’. His debut Moon was an underrated cult hit with a nuanced performance from Sam Rockwell (a very watchable actor who can be his own worst enemy by playing unusual characters a little too broadly) in the role of a lonely astronaut with existential angst on the titular planetoid. Fans of this first film, and indeed the company that bankrolled Source Code, probably expect his new film to be similar to a certain extent, but with higher stakes and a bigger budget, and be slightly more accessible. Luckily, Source Code manages to achieve all these things with aplomb. The science fiction is both more accessible than in some of the film’s predecessors - many people have seen Quantum Leap and Groundhog Day, which are both referenced in the casting and dialogue respectively - and more obtuse, as I for one can’t quite get my head around the nature of the lead character’s time travel. Moon‘s theme of a character dealing with the nature of his own ‘less than human’ status and experience of his own death over and over again is repeated and successfully reimagined here, and the only faults I found with the film were the tacked-on romance, which is of the Sandra Bullock ‘relationships that start under intense circumstances’ style, and slightly annoying product placement.
Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Gyllenhaal reacts to the time loop he’s trapped in with a similar range of responses: bewilderment, bemusement, hysteria, denial and eventually acquiescence, making the best out of a bad situation even if his final visit to the past might prove fatal. Both films ignore the immorality of the situation - Murray learning to ice-sculpt and play piano just to woo the woman he fancies and Gyllenhaal essentially stealing another man’s life - but they are both so enjoyable that you ignore the unspoken and concentrate on the excellent filmmaking.
Moon was helped in achieving cult status by an excellent ad campaign and word of mouth. Unfortunately, Source Code has had little of either - the disappointing posters being as generic as any dismal Philip K. Dick mis-adaptation - but this is the first great thriller and first great science fiction film of 2011, and it deserves to find as large an audience as possible.
Watch the trailer: