Duncan Jones, the young visionary behind Moon and now Source Code, surely finds inspiration in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Like that TV series, his films embody timeless sci-fi stories that, with the same forlorn tones, dilemmas and twists and turns, both entertain and provoke us intellectually. Even more, in the spirit of Serling, they possess an innovativeness and moral consciousness that’s missing from movies today.
Source Code, in fact, plays like an expounded episode of the classic franchise.
Starring a riveting Jake Gyllenhaal as Captain Colter Stevens, an American soldier who recently died in Afghanistan, the film takes us to a familiar yet futuristic world where Colter finds himself the subject of a government experiment called the Source Code. The program enables him to take on the identity of a man during the last eight minutes of his life.
Once inside Source Code, Colter wakes up on a train in the body of a stranger. His mission is to find the terrorist who bombed the train, killing hundreds of passengers. He must experience the catastrophe over and over again until he can stop it, not to save the passengers but to stop a second, more extensive attack in downtown Chicago.
From start to finish, this plot moves with a sense of urgency aided by quick edits, sleek visuals and stylized action sequences, making for a thrilling, action-packed ride. Like The Twilight Zone, though, which also first and foremost entertained, Source Code spins a story that goes beyond the surface. There’s not just a convincing romance between Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan, who plays a charming victim on the train, but there’s more importantly spiritual and political undertones that give the film depth.
As Colter gets deeper and deeper enthralled in his mission, we grow frustrated with the ethical problems surrounding his situation. This becomes apparent through the Source Code creator, a maddening Jeffrey Wright, and raises further questions about the government’s apathy toward those who fight. Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley seem to be confronting our military for behaving as if our soldiers weren’t real people with real lives, feelings, families and souls.
As the mission intensifies, we also become captivated by Colter’s heroism, a behavior birthed out of sympathy for the victims he meets and connects with. His compassion and courage causes viewers to feel gratitude for him and, furthermore, for those who love and risk everything for us day in and day out. In that sense, the film takes on a patriotic spirit that almost feels revered.
Though even with all these denser subtexts, the humanity within Source Code is ultimately what gives the film its power. It’s what connects us to it. Inside Colter there’s more than just a man who feels caught between isolation and empathy for the victims on the train. There’s a man who so desperately wants to reconcile his relationship with his father, despite already being dead.
This humanity, the same humanity we see in Vera Farmiga, who plays Colter’s compassionate monitor, allows the persistent missions to actually mean something because of the sympathy we feel for Colter. It causes us to take the otherwise overly serious themes and ideologies seriously.
Source Code’s humanity, moreover, makes it more than just another action thriller. It gives the film substance and spirituality, not to mention a relieving optimism about our hope and future. It’s kind of like, well, a trip inside The Twilight Zone.