** spoiler alert **
Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Capt. Colter Stevens, an Army chopper pilot who thinks he’s in Afghanistan, but soon discovers he’s in a capsule of some sort. Before he even knows what’s happening, Jake gets sent back in time to eight minutes before a commuter train blows up outside of Chicago. Once there, he quickly discovers he’s inhabiting the body of a man who was on the train. His mission is to locate the bomber because the bomber plans to explode a dirty bomb in Chicago later in the day. At first, Stevens has a hard time understanding what is happening. But slowly, he accepts the mission. Then the “big secret” is revealed, I yawned, the movie played out exactly per formula, and the credits did roll mightily.
Let’s start with the bad guy. This guy is awful. He looks like something out of Office Space and he’s far less menacing. He’s a nerd who want to kill millions of people because that’s what the plot requires. Indeed, when he’s asked to explain why he’s doing this, all he manages to babble is something about people being bad or something like that. Nor does Mr. Dull seem competent enough to put together the dirty bomb Jake is looking for. Did he find the plans online? Did he scrape the radioactive material from the copier at work? The film doesn’t go into “how” at all, but it seems fairly clear this idiot couldn’t build a bomb. And why the heck did he blow up the train at all if his real goal was to blow up the dirty bomb a few hours later? I can’t imagine why anyone would do that? Do bank robbers rob liquor stores on the way to the big robbery as a warm up? Always stretch!
Gyllenhaal similarly strains credibility throughout. First, there is nothing about Jake which lets us think he’s a pilot. Military pilots are always in complete in control. They are confident, dare I say cocky? They are Type-A personalities with exacting attention to detail. Yet, when you first meet Jake, he acts like he’s intimidated by rank, like some kid fresh out of training. Then he decides the mission is really a simulation so he goes goofy and treats it like a kid playing a videogame. Then he alternates between stupid and whiny, taking pointless and poorly thought-out risks, and he flops all over the place emotionally. Not once does he show military discipline or show the kind of confidence military training and combat experience bring. Nor does he have the slightest chemistry with either Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), who he falls deeply in love with in eight minutes, or Capt. Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), his controller who decides this program is wrong for no reason whatsoever except that it helps the plot.
This type of writing-failure is actually a problem throughout. When Jake acts up on the train, the reactions of the other characters feel like movie characters rather than real people. They protest just enough to let him deliver his lines while looking tough, and then sit quietly as he does what he needs to before he moves on to mess with the next person. Nobody calls the conductor or cops or attacks him. When we find out “the secret” (that Jake is actually dead), we suddenly get treated to this “I need to talk to my father” subplot which Jake isn’t able to sell convincingly. Of course, Jake gets his hands on a phone and calls his father while in the other body, and his father gives the perfect responses (without a hiccup) to resolve this issue happily within the deadline Jake needs.
Moreover, the science is flaky. And even worse, it feels flaky and they know it, so they try to hide it behind evasions: “you wouldn’t understand if explained it.” Basically, this program lets Jake occupy the body of anyone who died, somehow, but he can only occupy it for eight minutes, for some reason. How does he do this and why only dead people, you ask? That would require complex physics to explain. . . you wouldn’t understand. When he’s in that body, he can move around and interact with the people of that time, i.e. changing the time line, but he’s not changing the timeline, he’s really causing new dimensions to form. I’d explain it to you, but you’d need a PhD to understand. Oh, but wait, it turns out he actually can change time, for some reason, and he can stay in the body of the guy who never really died now. Don’t ask me to explain it, though, you wouldn’t understand.
This is a sign of a writer who has no clue (0.0%) of how his idea is supposed to work. And it gets really annoying to hear Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), who invented the Source Code Program, be incapable of explaining how this works and then giving mental placebos like saying this isn’t time travel, “it’s time rearrangement.” This very much undermines the film because they never establish any real rules for what is going on, so you don’t know what is really possible or what isn’t or why things happen.
You see the problem? No one can really get hurt in this film because we’re told everything is inevitable and we aren’t given clues that events could really be changed. Moreover, everything in this film comes so easily to Jake that there’s no suspense that he won’t get what he wants, especially as he can just keep trying until he gets it. That sucks the drama right out of the plot.
This is why Source Code stinks. It completely lacks suspense, it lacks interesting characters, difficult choices, recognizable motives, and the big idea science fiction films always try to send you home with. . . the “what if” thought. This film is Groundhog Day without the growth, the humor, or the humanity.