Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden, Scott Bakula
Running Time: 94 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Well, it took twenty years but I finally got my Quantum Leap movie. There's nothing quite like watching your favorite television series of all-time provide the inspiration for what turns out to be your favorite film of the year. Frustrated as I was that I couldn't catch Source Code in theaters, I was reassured by those who knew me that when I eventually did see it, I'd flip out. Good call. Director Duncan Jones has already proven himself an expert at intelligent science fiction storytelling with his 2009 masterpiece Moon and this just might be even better than that, despite advance buzz shoehorning it as some kind of mainstream action thriller. The ideas this contains are as huge as in that smaller-scale film and that it's so skillfully disguised amidst a 94-minute lean, mean pulse-pounding thriller is not only a credit to Jones' direction, but a multi-layered, Rubik's Cube of a script by Ben Ripley that deserves placement alongside the greats in the time travel genre. And as someone who's seen just about every time travel movie made and every scenario presented ad nauseum, that isn't faint praise. Make no mistake that this probably couldn't have been made had there been no Quantum Leap, but also don't underestimate how much Jones adds, and how well it'll play for those who have never even seen an episode of the cult 80's series starring Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell. This takes an already perfect premise and updates it, adding twists and turns, as well as timely elements of tragedy and human interest that make for an unforgettable viewing experience.
Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a American soldier returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan who suddenly awakes to find himself on a commuter train traveling to Chicago, not as himself, but school teacher Sean Fentress, a man whose body he's "leaped" into and is occupying. That morning the train will explode, killing everyone on board and Colter is told via Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) that he's been recruited as part of an experimental computer program created by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) called the "Source Code," which enables the user full access to the last eight minutes of a person's life. Not exactly time travel, but "time re-assignment" since the big catch is that there's nothing Colter (as Sean) can do to prevent the catastrophe in what's essentially a computer generated alternate timeline. His mission is solely to gain information on the identity of the bomber to prevent a larger future attack and he's being sent back as many times as is necessary to do it. With each eight-minute trip he learns more about the passengers and with the help of Sean's girlfriend Christina (Michelle Monaghan, comes closer to solving the crime, even as he's continually kept in the dark as to Goodwin and Rutledge's true motivations, as well as his own personal history.
Given that Colter must repeatedly re-live and re-play the same scenario over the course of the film, there's that temptation to compare this to Groundhog Day, which milked a somewhat similar premise for comedic effect. You could, but it would be inaccurate since it never once feels like we're watching the same scenes over and over again, nor is there anything the protagonist can do to actually alter history, one of two huge deviations the script makes from the Quantum Leap template. Jones doesn't spoon feed us any information and trust viewers' intelligence enough to dive right into the scenario from the very first frame, spilling out the revelations at a perfectly timed pace. There's a lot we don't know for a good stretch of time and occasionally Colter knows even less. Between trips, he's hauled up in a cockpit interrogated by these military bureaucrats who offer few answers, no leads and give little explanation of anything that's happened, yet coldly expect everything possible from him in return. The look and feel of these scenes are eerily reminiscent of 1995's sci-fi mind-bender 12 Monkeys, in which an unwilling time travel participant is also cruelly taken advantage of and at risk of being sacrificed for a greater good.
The events on the train never feel like a repeats but rather different sides of an expertly crafted Hithcockian puzzle in which the audience must pay attention to each subtle detail with the possibility they could come into play later, and a few do. Nearly the entire film takes place in a single location and Jones squeezes an unbearable amount of tension out of each passing moment, taking full advantage of every corner of the frame, each passenger and every one of their tiniest actions. There's a darkly brilliant twist that comes into play at almost the half-way mark that I can't reveal, but it changes the game completely, yet somehow still feels organic to the story and raises the stakes higher. Jones' deft handling of the material sends it over-the-top but if Ben Ripley's ingenious spec script (justifiably ranked as one of Hollywood's top unproduced screenplays), which offers up impossible questions, then somehow manages to logically answer all of them concisely, isn't Award-worthy, I don't know what is. The terrorism and thriller aspects also interweave seamlessly with the more sci-fi driven elements, giving the story the same timely, human interest undercurrent that became the hallmark of Quantum Leap during its run. When we finally do meet the bomber he doesn't disappoint, more than exceeding all expectations of frightening everyday creepiness.
While watching it's almost impossible to stop and consider performances are being given as the action moves at such a brisk clip it feels as if you're on a ride with the characters, rather than a witness to great acting, but we are. Gyllenhaal has to play crucial scenes out of order more numerously and differently that in any other kind of film because of the complicated narrative framework. Because this is an action thriller and the story and direction seem to be the stars, it's easy to overlook just how much work he has to do in what's at its core a character driven piece that rests on his authenticity in the role. He's a worthy successor to Scott Bakula and fills his shoes, which just might be the highest compliment I'm capable of giving anyone. At first, Farmiga and Wright seem like they'll just be playing talking heads but the info that comes out, the deeper and more complex their characters and performances as them become, especially Farmiga's toward the third act. As for Wright, he's got this crazy mad scientist thing down pat and it's fun watching some of the campy choices he makes with his vocal delivery and mannerisms, while still maintaining a dark, twisted edge. Monaghan delivers as Christina, the only part that seems like it could be filled by anyone else, but that doesn't mean another actress would necessarily click as well with Gyllenhaaal, with whom she shares every scene.
Going in, I was aware of the Scott Bakula cameo, but even knowing a little about the nature of it couldn't prepare me for how awesome a moment it was to hear the voice and have him and the show acknowledged in such a meaningful way at the most crucial point in the film. I can probably speak for most hardcore Quantum Leap fans in saying I was pinching myself that Jones openly acknowledged the influence, inducing that feeling of excitement absent since the show left the air in 1993. And wait until you see what happens in the final eight minutes. Too many promising thrillers are victims of silly studio-driven concessions to send audiences home happy and rake in more cash, but this isn't afraid to go dark and leave you thinking hard. Supposedly, there's an alternate ending floating around somewhere but I have little desire to see it since this one is perfect, providing just enough closure, but leaving more than enough to ponder and debate afterward. I'm still not sure I even completely understood it, which is a good thing, as its structure definitely lends itself to repeated viewings.
It seems at every year at about this time I throw my arms up in the air complaining about the lack of quality films, until something comes a long and kicks me in the face, reminding me why I still bother. This kicked me hard. As someone who's always had a sneaking suspicion Quantum Leap could serve as the perfect jumping-off point for a feature if the right creative choices were made, it's great to finally see it happen, adapted and tweaked to embellish the original conceit and open it up cinematically. While Jones proudly wears those influences on his sleeve, what's most impressive is how it still remains completely fresh and original, far smarter than audiences and critics have given it credit for. Rich in ideas and brilliant in construction, Source Code easily ranks among the most ambitious science fiction efforts in years and is one I can't wait to revisit soon. Rather than a review, it feels like I should instead be writing Jones a "thank you" note for briefly resuscitating my favorite show and letting its ideas realize their full potential on the big screen.