Duncan Jones’s 2011 sci-fi thriller “Source Code” revealed a thematic continuity from his debut film “Moon.” His movies search for humanity within the fantastical realms of science. While in essence most all science fiction is just that, Jones does so with a philosopher’s gumption.
With “Moon” Jones explored how identity could be violated through a harvested clone, played by Sam Rockwell. In an intimate story, “Moon” questioned the very nature of what it means to be human if cloned. With “Source Code” he superimposes this philosophical question of identity over the idea of alternate, or multiple universes.
Reviews labeled “Source Code” as a thrilling, yet confusing film, which forewarn unsuspecting audiences, but conceptually it’s nothing new to cinema. Alternate realities go back as far as Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the difference being that angels like Clarence evolved into scientific theories. A list of comparisons to “Source Code” are plentiful: “Groundhog Day,” “Frequency,” “12 Monkeys,” “Sliding Doors,” “Run Lola Run,” “The Butterfly Effect.” Of course “Donnie Darko” as well, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal who is the heart of “Source Code.” It was Gyllenhaal who championed Ben Ripley’s “Source Code” script into the hands of Duncan Jones.
Gyllenhaal plays a helicopter pilot who awakes aboard a Chicago bound train with a bomb on it, yet only in an 8-minute loop of time. Explosion after explosion, he comes to realize he is not physically on the train, but embodying one of the passengers already dead. In reality he is trapped in a pod, undergoing some kind of astral-projected teleportation into the last minutes of the passengers’ lives.
This is where another “Moon” similarity comes in, as the character realizes he is a pawn of technological experiments by ominous powers. In “Moon” it was energy corporations mining Earth’s sattellite and with “Source Code” it is the military tapping into shadows of time. Jones’s films differ cinematically, where “Moon” feels like a sterilized sci-fi cult hit and “Source Code” like a glossy Hollywood blockbuster.
Credit should be noted to accomplished cinematographer Don Burgess, who distinguished the environments of “Source Code” with 2 cameras. The “reality” of “Source Code” was shot on the digital Red One camera to capture textured perceptions in high resolution. The alternate reality of the time loop was shot on 35mm, which evokes the glossy Hollywood look.
Duncan Jones was originally working with composer Clint Mansell, who did the atmospheric “Moon” score. Yet, the great scheduling enemy of filmmaking resulted in a score from Chris P. Bacon for “Source Code.” Bacon’s score is good, clean movie music, but it glosses over what could’ve layered the film’s edgy mind warp.
The many references “Source Code” gets to “Groundhog Day” misses the mark of descriptive comparisons. It’s “Minority Report,” Phillip K. Dick’s sci-fi crime thriller, meets “Quantum Leap,” the television series, smashed into a “Groundhog Day” premise. “Quantum Leap” star Scott Bakula even has a small cameo in “Source Code,” acknowledged only by the most attuned ears.
Bakula’s cameo winks to fans of time-warping science fiction, but Jones is not completely possessed. “Source Code” also references Alfred Hitchcock, where trains were always reliable plot devices; especially in his classic identity thriller, “North by Northwest.” Hitchcock gave Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) a run for his identity, leaving thematic footprints for Sam Bell (Rockwell) in “Moon” and Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) in “Source Code.”
There is something thematically larger in “Source Code” with Gyllenhaal’s character being a soldier. He embodies the hero inside the everyman and the terrorist plot on a train draws a connection to the post 9/11 world. The spirit and heart of Captain Stevens possess a train passenger, embracing that there may be a hero inside us all, even if channeled from an alternate reality. This is not unlike the heroic passengers on United’s Flight 93 during the 9/11 attacks, who took fate into their own hands.
“Source Code” has its own heroes in casting Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright, who all inhabit the Humanity, good and bad, that Jones is after. It all comes together in the legendary hands of Editor Paul Hirsch. Ripley’s tightly knit script and Hirsch’s masterful touch ensures that any confusion forewarned by critics is derailed into a parallel universe.