Mozart originally ended his opera Don Giovanni with Don Giovanni descending into Hell, his soul claimed by the devil, and later added a final ensemble to bring the performance away from the bleakness of that end, which was considered too dark. For me, the opera is stronger with the final ensemble omitted, because it allows the sheer emotional and moral power of Don Giovanni’s fate to linger in your mind instead of being mitigated by the tidy cheerfulness of the dénouement. Source Code suffered from the same problem: there was a clear point of finality to the story, one artistic moment of filming and philosophy that to me was the natural ending…and then there was an epilogue to that. An add-on to the story which changed the impact and the implications of that previous scene, and, for me, was a serious detraction from what would otherwise have been a truly great movie.
Let me be clear—I liked this movie. It was a good movie, an enjoyable movie, an emotion-toying, thought-provoking, original-storied film. But it would have been an A+ movie, a great movie, a movie I loved if it had ended where I thought it would.
Let me also state that I realize that I am not everyone, and that many people will probably like this version of the film better than my version. And that’s what the ending it has felt like—the commercial ending. I just prefer the artistic, existential, ambiguous ending.
Do I feel like this more commercial ending makes Duncan Jones a sell-out? Not at all. His follow-up to Moon might not have been quite as good, but it was definitely good. It proved that he can handle a larger cast and a larger budget without losing focus on a tight story, compelling situations, and emotional suspense. It was well directed, well edited, well filmed, well acted. Solid all the way around.
The story revolves around Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), who finds himself being sent back in time into someone else’s mind, to relive the last 8 minutes of that man’s life again and again, and in doing so find the person who planted the bomb that blew up the train, in order to give the current-time authorities a way to stop him before he hits the next target in his “letter of intent.” The movie is mostly a mystery, as Stevens races against the clock each time, trying to find enough clues to solve the puzzle, but there are also elements of romance as he finds himself drawn to the man’s commute friend (Michelle Monaghan), action as he tries to take down suspects and disarm the bomb, and, obviously, the science fiction framework of what he’s doing. All of the different elements wove together very well to create a movie with a lot of cross-appeal; it’s definitely science fiction, but not enough so that it puts off people who don’t like SF in general because of the current-world setting and action-hero mission. (In fact, IMDB lists this movies genres as “Action, Mystery, Romance,” a characterization by the production team to, again, maximize its commercial appeal.)
One of the strongest compliments I can give to this movie is that it was paced very well. I think with a film that flips between timelines and has a lot of repeated scenes, that it could be very easy to lose track of how to move the narrative and the information along. But this movie was easy to follow, and, more importantly, constantly engaging. It didn’t stay on one track long enough for me to get bored, and the dispensation of information came at just the right times—just when I started to get antsy about what was going on, thinking, “okay, enough events, give me a damn answer here!” an answer came along. Maybe not a full one, but enough of one to satisfy that anxiety and yet still leave more to be discovered.
The acting was solid. Jake Gyllenhaal is a talented actor, and while I don’t think this was a stretch for him, I also have no complaints about his performance. Michelle Monaghan was simply radiant as Christina. I absolutely bought his instant attraction to her and his desire to save her, even with only spending time with her in 8-minute chunks that all began the exact same way. (That aspect was a little bit like Groundhog Day in miniature, which isn’t a bad thing.) Vera Farmiga was the only other character with a lot of face time, as Stevens’ mission controller, and I thought she did a great job balancing the military efficiency and distance of an officer with the deep conflicts and emotions her interactions with Stevens created.
The effects on this movie were handled well, which is a big positive for Jones as a director. With Moon he went old-school and used models for almost everything, which was one of the things I loved most about that movie. CG still just doesn’t compare. Not yet. With Source Code‘s base premise, there was no way to avoid the use of CG, but it looked good and was used about as sparingly as was possible. It was also used to create artistic fades between certain scenes (basically any time he was going in or out of the source code matrix). Source Code definitely did not suffer from a Michael Bay complex, unless you understand that to mean a complex about being as unlike Michael Bay as is humanly possible within the same medium.
I was definitely satisfied with this movie as a larger-budget follow-up to Duncan Jones’ brilliant debut, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes SF movies, alternate-reality movies, time-travel movies, or save-the-world movies. I wish I could say it would be in my top 5 SF movies of the current decade, but that damn epilogue prevents it. But don’t worry, Jones—this one was good enough that you’ll be getting many more opportunities at that next list.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.