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3 April 2011

Strangers on a Train

I first saw the trailer for Source Code at the same time as the one for Limitless and for another high-concept, action/thriller for lads and immediately dismissed it. Jake Gyllenhaal is on a train with Michelle Monaghan but he doesn't know who she is or whom she thinks he is and then the train blows up. Then we see him in the same scenario but with slightly different details. Lots of explosions, lots of confusions and a big kiss between the two leads. I filed the film under "only if I get a free ticket" and moved on but then I found out it was directed by Duncan Jones, who directed Moon, which I loved, and decided it was worth a second chance.

Fortunately, the trailer doesn't give anything much about the way (apart from that Gyllenhaal and Monaghan will, at some point, kiss. The film itself is much better. It starts off the same as the trailer -- Jake awakes and thinks he is a military helicopter captain called Colter Stevens but a woman he discovers is called Christina (Monaghan), sitting opposite, calls him Sean Fentress and indeed, his driving license confirms this; the reflection in the bathroom mirror confirms he doesn't look like Colter Stevens (i.e. Jake Gyllenhaal) either. He wanders around trying to work out what is going on and then eight minutes later the train blows up. I think it's worth going into the film not knowing any more than that but there may be some spoilers in the rest of this post...


When he wakes up, Stevens finds himself in a small, stark compartment with a computer monitor, which begins to carry out memory tests on him. Eventually, a woman in military uniform (Goodwin -- played by Vera Farmiga) comes on screen and tells him that a train blew up earlier that morning on its way to Chicago, killing all the passengers, and that they know that the bomber's next target is much bigger -- all of Chicago. Through some fancy technology that (thankfully, perhaps) isn't really explained, Stevens can be sent into the body and mind of anyone who has only eight minutes to live (or, technically, into the body of someone who is already dead for the last eight minutes of his life). They assigned him to the body of the teacher as their physical and mental resemblance was strongest and he has to find out who the bomber is so they can stop the next super bomb. And they're going to keep sending him back in until he succeeds.

Naturally, Stevens has plenty of questions; for example, the last thing he remembers is being in a helicopter in Afghanistan so what the hell is going on? Goodwin is keen to get a wriggle on, however, as they don't have much time. It takes Stevens quite a few attempts to get the hang of this body-jumping thing. He finds out he'll die after eight minutes even if he gets off the train and that although minor things can change in each rerun, he can't change the past -- the only goal is to alter the future. He can't save the people on the train, for example, because they're already dead, including the lovely Christina, for whom he falls in steady, eight-minute chunks. But how can she be dead when she feels so real? As Bruce Springsteen might say, "We're livin' in the future, but none of this has happened yet."

Further plot developments mean that Stevens might not just have to save the city of Chicago but also himself as he struggles to find out where he goes between the reruns or why no one will give him any information or call his father with whom he had a fight while he was in Afghanistan. Goodwin's boss, who owns Source Code, is even less helpful and warns his underling not to be too lenient with Stevens; they have lives to save. And Stevens realises that dying over and over and over again isn't all that fun; maybe it would be better if he was permanently dead. It reminds me of a ghost story Papa used to read us from what may have been The Young Oxford Book of Ghost Stories (possibly "The Last Bus"), which involved a girl (or some children) who turned out to have died a horrible death some time ago but have to keep on reliving the death over and over again. "I/we have to keep on dying," she explains to the narrator.

In any case, I liked Source Code a lot and although some of the logic and timelines behind what happens might not exactly be flawless, they don't make much less sense to me than most of quantum physics... I was very engaged for the whole film and even felt quite emotionally attached to Stevens' developing relationship with Christina. I was expecting to be made jump by the regular train explosions but it's a much subtler thriller than that, with interesting ideas and definitely a clever scenario for the character to be in -- like in Moon, the protagonist is confined to limited geographical areas and is also emotionally isolated from others. In Source Code, of course, Stevens is all alone while surrounded by several hundred people. Who are already dead. I think I need some more coffee. Or maybe just whatever the guy in Limitless had...

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