Like Moon, his previous film, director Duncan Jones brings an all-too-welcome level of thought and intelligence to the sci-fi thriller Source Code. It’s rare to find a genre film that doesn’t just introduce interesting ideas but faithfully explore them without resorting to formula trappings (I’m looking at you, Deja Vu).
But that’s exactly what Jones has delivered. Again. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Colter Stevens, a military helicopter pilot who wakes up on a commuter train bound for Chicago – in another man’s body. Across from him is Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a woman who seems to know him, or know the body he’s in.
Colter doesn’t have much time to examine his situation, however: in eight minutes, a bomb detonates and destroys the train and everyone on it. But Colter doesn’t die – he wakes up, again. Now he’s strapped to a seat in some kind of chamber (shades of the time travel device in 12 Monkeys) and communicating with Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) on a television monitor.
“What is this? Where am I?” He asks. Goodwin doesn’t seem to be too keen on providing answers. “We don’t have much time,” she tells him. “Find the bomber.”
And, like Groundhog Day, he’s back on the train for another eight minutes. Colter is in the “Source Code,” we learn, a device used to trace the brain activity of a recently deceased person, match that to a living person, and send that person on a living journey through the last eight minutes of the deceased’s life.
The bomb on the train was the first in a suspected series of terrorist attacks; Colter must find the bomber within the Source Code and relay that information to prevent a future attack. How can Colter do things in these eight minutes that the deceased man never experienced? “The Source Code is a gift,” inventor and supervisor Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) tells him.
“Don’t squander it by thinking.” Apt advice for audiences, too. We experience most of the film from Colter’s perspective, and Gyllenhaal is the perfect conduit for the audience as a perplexed everyman hero trying to cope with a situation he cannot fully comprehend.
He wants to save the passengers on the train, even though they’re already dead. And hey, so do we. The supporting cast has less room to breathe, but Farmiga and Wright are fun in roles that are more complex than they initially appear.
In the span of two films, director Jones (born Zowie Bowie, the son of David Bowie) has already made a name for himself; in a world where science fiction is either too self-referential to appeal to mass audiences, or too sanitized to appeal to sci-fi fans, he’s hit the perfect notes in succession.
Under 90 minutes without credits, Source Code is a lean, tight, and most importantly, brainy thriller; there are holes here, sure, but the pacing is so swift we’re never given the opportunity to question them as the film is unfolding.
The film is bound to inspire debate and discussion on multiverse theory, time travel paradoxes, and the feasibility of devices like those presented in the film. Compelling and thought-provoking without breaking a sweat, Source Code is a rare film indeed.