Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

SOURCE CODE (2011)

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Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished. He woke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al (Dean Stockwell), an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.

THE STORY:
Hey, if I couldn’t get away with that fake intro, then this movie can’t get away with shamelessly stealing its premise from Quantum Leap.

It’s like looking into a mirror.

So Jake Gyllenhaal IS Captain Colter Stevens, who IS Sean Fentress, or at least, he’s inhabiting his body. When the train he’s on goes kablooie, he wakes up in a filthy cockpit thing-a-ma-jig and has no idea how the hell any of this started. He’s told by Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) that he has to do it all over again so he can identify the bomber. Basically, he can always go back to eight minutes before the explosion, but in the “real” world, time is still ticking and the culprit is threatening to blow up all of Chicago.

“A tiny viewscreen? This is bullshit! Where’s my wisecracking hologram pal?”

Dr. Rutledge boldly claims that Source Code is not time travel, or is it? He blabbers about light bulbs and human memory and parallel realities, but it all boils down to simple alternate travel rules: whatever you “change” doesn’t actually change, not in our universe. At least, that’s what he’s telling Colter, and the movie was smart to leave him in the dark so that we too can distrust Dr. Rutledge. They may have just combined quantum leaping with groundhog daying, but the extra layer of mystery surrounding how Colter found himself in this situation and how he might be able to get out makes up for the lack of pure originality.

It’s like he’s got a Swiss cheese brain or something…

So, even if you don’t like time travel, maybe you’ll at least enjoy a bunch of characters lying, disobeying orders, and haggling. Or romance! Oh, wait, that…

THE ACTING:
The fact that there’s no need to mention Michelle Monaghan until the acting section is a bit of a problem for me. Much like… well, shit, Jake Gyllenhaal’s other two time travel movies, the female is just there to motivate Our Hero. Michelle plays Christina Warren, the love interest of… Sean Fentress, the guy whose body he’s borrowing. He of course tells her that he’s not actually Sean immed– NOPE, he’s taken his Bakula Seduction 101 course.

Science fiction: boldly going there.

So, while Michelle’s performance is very sweet, it’s a shame that she was not allowed to play what we scientists call a “character,” because minus one particularly artsy shot, Christina could be completely written out of the story.

Jake Gyllenhaal does his paranoid action man thing just fine. Nothing fancy, nothing cheesy.

“Mention Bubble Boy one more goddamn time…”

The real stand-outs are Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright. Their characters are complete strangers to Colter, but their possibly deceptive demeanors are played with great subtlety. Farmiga seems torn between morals and rank and plays it with hints of sympathy, but she’s still loyal to the mission.

“Maybe don’t refer to him as ‘the test animal’? Just a suggestion.”

You get the sense that Wright’s Dr. Rutledge is by no means an evil man, but he cares a little more about proving that Source Code works than he does about saving the city… or Colter. He’s shifty, but it’s so very slight. No hand-wringing and cackling for this scientist.

“If he dies, throw him on the pile.”

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
It’s Duncan Jones, the director of Moon, so we get cerebral, somewhat artsy montages for the time travel, which don’t look particularly good as screencaps, so just imagine them.

Okay, you can have one.

You get to see a CGI train blow up over and over. That’s not bad.

Aww, I thought he had it this time.

OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF:

  • This is clearly an alternate universe because people use Bing.

  • Perfect cameo spoiler. It’s such an awesome time travel in-joke that a) you might not even catch it until the credits and b) I refuse to spoil it, because I think you might want to watch this.

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
It’s the sort of thing I wish were in more time travel movies: Colter and Dr. Rutledge have a heated fight about whether or not Source Code runs on mutable or alternate rules. Colter has clearly changed events within the Source Code and thinks Rutledge is lying about it not leaving an impression on the outside world. When Rutty starts to give him the same tired speech again, Colton lets out an almost Nicolas Cage-esque explosion of rage:

“You know what? Next time, I’ll send you a pizza! I’LL SEE IF THAT MAKES AN IMPRESSION!

FINAL THOUGHTS:
It’s no Moon, but if you’re going to watch a sci-fi thriller, it helps to have the same director at the helm. Except for the entirely disposable and borderline creepy romantic sub-plot, there are plenty of extra twists and turns (that I deliberately didn’t mention) that really do elevate this from being just a Quantum Leap rip-off. When I first saw ads for it, I laughed it off as goofy action bullshit, but it’s got a surprising amount of depth. Also, it’s the film I enjoyed the most in Jake Gyllenhaal’s time travel trilogy. Check it out.

NEXT WEEK:
Recommendations Week! 11 Minutes Ago (2007), Triangle (2009)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.