The Review: Two years ago, Duncan Jones announced his arrival as a film-maker of note with his debut feature, Moon. If you’ve not seen it, then (a) shame on you, and (b) it was a wonderful marriage of some hard sci-fi concepts with a very old school feel and story telling method, even eschewing masses of CGI for honest-to-goodness model making for the spaceship shots, for example. When crafting something so distinctive, there’s a risk that expectations increase unfairly for the follow-up, and that the audience is either expecting more of the same or a complete departure. What Jones has produced is a half-way house, still grounded in some chunky sci-fi concepts, but with a slightly bigger budget and a change in both tone and pacing. That change is just different, but it shows already that Jones is comfortable working in more than one style.
Two years ago, Duncan Jones announced his arrival as a film-maker of note… no, hang on, I seem to have gone back to the beginning. What did we learn first time? Duncan Jones has made a sci-fi mystery thriller, instead of a sci-fi mystery drama. Actually, that may be all you need to know going in, as part of the joy is discovering Source Code for yourself; half of the action is set in or around a train bound for Chicago, and while Moon was relatively fixed in its position, Source Code moves, quite literally, at a hundred miles an hour from the word go. Which is shortly followed by the words “my train just exploded.” You can almost feel the inevitable comparison with Inception, and this is another example of British guided invention with some big concepts on the big screen, but here instead of one world with many layers, all of which are built on self-defining principles, we have two worlds presented to us, and through the eyes of Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhall), we have to try to understand not only what’s actually taking place, but also how the train and the Source Code are connected.
Two years ago, Duncan Jones… right, film-maker of note. Change in style. Will get unfairly compared to Inception. Simultaneous mysteries. Comparisons have also been made to Groundhog Day, and those might be slightly fairer, but only in the sense of what that film did so well and what Source Code also achieves, in that repeating the same actions over and over sounds like it could be horribly repetitive, but actually it’s only the framework that repeats, and the central character takes a different route through it each time, while the plot continues to advance at a significant rate. No doubt helping that transition are Gyllenhall and Michelle Monaghan, neither a stranger to having to insert depth of character into the action movie or thriller, and both do excellent work here, Gyllenhall especially managing to invest both realities with sufficient variations to keep it interesting. Vera Farmiga is also noteworthy as the voice of authority, and brings emotion to a role that could have been clogged up with exposition. It’s just a shame that the film is set at breakfast time, as Jeffrey Wright appears to be tucking into his first meal of the day; sadly chewed scenery gets eaten each time we go through another scene with him. Thankfully it’s not enough to unbalance the film too much.
Two years ago, Duncan Jones was the son of David Bowie. Now he’s a film maker in his own right, and he has two movies of equally high quality to show for it. There are obvious connections between the two, not least a few of the director’s trademarks, including the odd inclusion of Chesney Hawkes’ “The One And Only” and Jones’ excellent choices in voice casting, here the supremely self-referential voice of Stevens’ father, but otherwise there’s a complete difference in tone; yet in the same way that Rear Window and North By Northwest happily spring from the same hand, so Source Code is a worthy companion piece to Moon. While comparisons to the work of Nolan and Harold Ramis are the obvious ones on the surface, look deeper and you’ll see themes picked up by everyone from Paul Verhoeven to David Cronenberg, yet it still feels fresh. The plot isn’t by any means predictable, taking plenty of satisfying twists and turns but moving fast enough that you’ll have to consider the moral ramifications once you’ve left your seat and headed for the exit. That’s no bad thing, though, and Source Code is superior entertainment, working both as good sci-fi, top notch thriller and believable romantic drama, marshalling its resources expertly and leaving you keen to see what Duncan Jones has to offer next. Let’s just hope it’s another original – he’s one man who’s shown he doesn’t need to keep repeating himself to have success.
Why see it at the cinema: Duncan Jones has a fantastic sense of the visual, there’s plenty of audience-reaction-inducing good lines along the way and with this kind of mystery, half the fun is attempting to work out if you have sussed what’s going on before your neighbour.
The Score: 9/10
The Review: Movies based on video games are almost invariably bad movies. From the spectacularly awful Super Mario Bros. onwards, the genre (if it deserves such a grand title) has thrown out bad movie after bad movie, so it would take a brave soul to invest major summer movie money in a video game adaptation. On paper, this had two things going for it – it’s based on one of the best games from a series of really good games, and it’s a Jerry Bruckheimer production, which normally ensures at least some level of quality threshold.
But there’s something else in common with most video game movies – any of the best bits in most of the not completely terrible ones do have that feeling of watching someone else play a video game, in that it would be more fun to be controlling the action than watching someone else do it. As video games themselves have become more cinematic over the past ten years, you could reasonably hope that adaptations would also improve, and to a certain extent that’s true here. If anything, the biggest single failing here is of the movie to use the video game power effectively – the rewinds thanks to the sand offer less here than they did in the original game, and somehow feel less mythical.
There is good stuff here if you’re patient, but it’s mixed in with some not so good. Jake Gyllenhall was an unlikely choice for the titular prince, but brings a flawless English accent when, after movies like Robin Hood, people may not have complained if he’d stuck with his own, and he has also acquired the appropriate physical stature. Gemma Arterton, sadly, fares less well; she gets some good lines, although oddly her accent is less convincing than Gyllenhall’s in some places, and she doesn’t have the same sense of fun that she’s managed to bring to some of her other movies. That’s left to Alfred Molina, who is comic relief to such an extent that he appears to be in almost an entirely different film, but one that while not necessarily better, may at least be more fun. Ben Kingsley delivers a rent-a-baddie and manages to be clichéd without being scenery-chewing, when neither or both may have again served better. The script is the most variable, keeping things moving along nicely with the occasional surprise, but sometimes featuring exposition so heavy you can almost see the bottom of the screen sagging under the weight.
Going in, you’d hope that the movie might evoke comparisons to Pirates of the Caribbean or an Indiana Jones movie; instead the level is more Romancing the Stone and its desert based sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, with the main characters bickering their way through a sort of road movie adventure. This is the best video game adaptation yet brought to film, and that is damning with faint praise, but the action scenes are all well realised (to the extent where I’d almost like to see what Newell could do with a Bond movie) and there is more fun and adventure than many failed summer efforts, just not enough to make this more than a passing entertainment. If only Bruckheimer had a real Sands of Time dagger, he may have been able to rewind enough to tweak this to greatness.
Why see it at the cinema: It does deliver on scale and spectacle, and thankfully escaped a fate worse than box-office death (a 3D conversion).
The Score: 6/10