‘Code’ severs crucial tension in final moments

April 12, 2011

Director Duncan Jones deserves a lot of accolades for his attempt to resurrect old-school sci-fi.

In 2009's "Moon," Jones took a minimalist approach to the genre, with Sam Rockwell as a lunar miner facing a tough final mission before returning to his family on Earth.

He was given a substantially bigger budget with "Source Code," but still keeps the story scaled down, focusing on a specific eight-minute chunk of time which our hero must repeatedly relive in order to prevent a disaster. While it's tempting to slap a "Bomb-Strapped-Groundhog Day" label on this thriller (which is not entirely unfair, mind you), Jones and writer Ben Ripley have coiled things tightly enough in "Code's" runtime that it establishes its own identity before its final-act fizzle.

Air Force Capt. Colter Stevens awakens, disoriented, in the body of a train passenger minutes before it's set to blow. Sitting across from him is a charming colleague (played by an adorable Michelle Monaghan), who is puzzled by his ramblings of mistaken identity.

When Stevens fails the first go-round, the fiery explosion sends him back to a darkened hospital-like isolation chamber where he is under the watchful eye of military officer Colleen Goodwin (played by Vera Farmiga, making the most of a slender role). She informs him that he is part of an experimental project in which he's sent into the body of one of the train's passengers and must investigate just who on that fateful trip is responsible for the explosion.

Its comparisons to the beloved Bill Murray comedy are not merely with its "hiccup in time" story concept, but also with the film's exploration of its lead character's growth as a person and its romantic tendencies.

It does provide depth betwixt the repeated explosions, but it severs crucial tension in the final moments of the film that stops it just shy of giving the film lasting resonance.

Up until then, though, Jones (the man formerly known as Zowie Bowie aka David Bowie's son), mixes the right amount of pseudoscientific hokum and gripping anxiety to fuel "Source Code's" runaway engine.

Mr. Darko himself, Gyllenhaal, exhibits a playfulness at times that he seldom shares on screen, which ingratiates him to the viewer. The entire cast, in fact, is ready to play, and manages to make believable scenes that could derail the momentum. The only actor who seems a bit misplaced is Jeffrey Wright as the military scientist who discovered the code. His curious delivery seems as though he's walked into a staged Shakespeare adaptation rather than a slice of sci-fi fun.

The film certainly holds up better than the similar beat-the-clock narrative of last month's "The Adjustment Bureau," and it helps to mainstream Jones into the collective consciousness. Here's hoping that he can now build on a solid foundation to create stronger, thoughtful, accessible science fiction to counter the clatter of Michael Bay-tainted drivel that now passes for entries in the genre.