In 2009, director Duncan Jones made a splash on the indie scene by bringing us a smart, trippy sci-fi film called Moon. The film was warmly received by critics, but fell short of being a commercial success.
Despite the fact that Source Code has all the trappings of a studio film (bigger budget, bigger stars, bigger advertising campaign) Jones has remained remarkably faithful to his indie roots. The result is the rare mix of a smart thriller with wide audience appeal. We’ve seen that audiences don’t always shy away from smart films (case in point, Christopher Nolan’s Inception); maybe we are finally starting to see the studios warm to the idea that smart and commercially viable are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts.
Source Code proves that the two can concepts can co-exist in perfect harmony. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Captain Colter Stevens, who finds himself on a train in Chicago one day and is completely panicked to find out that he has no idea who the woman sitting with him is, and he doesn’t know how he got on the train. Before he can put the pieces of the puzzle, the train blows up.
Colter finds himself waking up in a pod-type device, listening to the soothing voice of Colleen (Vera Farmiga), a military officer who explains that he has been sent back in time (before the train exploded) to find out who placed the bomb on the train. They believe that another attack is planned, and the only way to stop it is to find the perpetrator of the attack on the first train.
This is not typical time travel. Colter’s body resides in the pod while his conscious takes over the body of one of the commuters exactly eight minutes before the train explodes. This is all accomplished via the “Source Code”, a quantum physics formula that has recently been perfected for military use.
So Colter is sent back, again and again, each time gleaning a little morsel of information he can use before he “dies” in the explosion. It’s like Groundhog Day, with explosions. Since Colter can remember each of his previous visits to the train, he gets to know Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who only sees Sean (whose body he inhabits) when she looks at him.
Over the course of many, many trips back, Colter starts to develop his own feelings for Christina. This heightens the urgency of his mission; now he wants to prevent her certain death in the explosion. Of course, we all know that you can’t change the course of the future by going back in the past, right? Doesn’t that violate the basic tenants of time travel or something?
Jones does an excellent job of keeping the story fresh and exciting, despite the repeated events. Each visit Colter takes back has the slightest variant, whether it be where someone is sitting, what Christina talks about, or even something as mundane as a coffee spill. The progression of Colter’s feelings for Christina seems logical and believable.
Back in the pod, Colter eventually coaxes some information from Colleen, who seems extremely sympathetic toward him. Of course the Source Code program is a bit sinister, and completely unethical. Jeffrey Wright plays Dr. Rutledge, the mastermind of the project. He might as well be twirling a mustache and rubbing his hands together in glee, because he is laughably evil.
Colleen is the good little soldier sticking to the script for the most part, but everything she says seems like it is tinged with sadness and regret, and Farmiga is great at conveying that. Gyllenhaal admirably pulls off the action hero role, but Monaghan serves as the typical female love interest and not much more.
The film zips along at a great pace, and ends at about ninety minutes. The last four minutes made my brain explode, and the film warrants a second viewing to try to figure it all out. Let’s just say that quantum physics is not my forte. I find smart, movies about time travel equal parts exhilarating, mind-bending, and frustrating. This is no exception.
Duncan Jones has crafted a sci-fi tale that is thrilling as well as cerebral. I wouldn’t have it any other way.