Duncan Jones was probably bombarded with a number of offers to direct a big studio movie following the release and cult success of his directorial debut, “Moon,” but there’s something about his decision to choose “Source Code” as his follow-up that tells you a lot about the kind of filmmaker he hopes to become. To some extent a companion piece to “Moon” in that they’re both morality tales about technology, Jones has succeeded in taking yet another high-concept premise and spinning it into a captivating thriller that’s both incredibly simple in execution and yet brain-teasingly complex the more you pick it apart. A thinking man’s sci-fi film with real mainstream appeal.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Cpt. Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot stationed in Afghanistan who wakes up suddenly to discover he’s riding on a commuter train headed to Chicago. The twist? He’s in the body of a man named Sean Fentress, and before he can figure out what’s going on, the train explodes. But Stevens isn’t actually dead, and when he awakens in a strange capsule seconds later, he’s greeted by a woman named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who informs him that he’s part of a military experiment that’s trying to stop a terrorist attack in Chicago. Using a computer program called the Source Code, they can send Stevens’ consciousness into the body of Fentress for the last eight minutes of his life, granting him a unique opportunity to examine the scene of the crime before it even happens, in the hope that he can identify the bomber and prevent a second attack on the city. But as Stevens gets closer to tracking down the culprit with each new pass, he sets his mind on saving his fellow commuters (including Michelle Monaghan), despite the fact that the creator of the Source Code (Jeffrey Wright) tells him it isn’t possible.
That might sound like an awful lot of information to process, but “Source Code” isn’t nearly as confusing as it lets on. With the exception of one exposition-heavy scene at the beginning of the film that tells you just about everything you need to know, the rest of the movie is split between Stevens’ investigation of the train’s passengers via a time loop that always ends with him dying, and communicating with the people running the mission. Of course, there are several twists and turns along the way, but Jones doesn’t hide his hand particularly well. Two of the film’s biggest revelations are not only predictable, but pretty obvious if you just pay attention, and though it would have ruined a lesser movie, “Source Code” is still engaging even when you know how it will end.
You wouldn’t think that a film about a guy experiencing the same eight minutes over and over again would be very interesting (even “Groundhog Day” took place over the course of a day), but Jones manages to prevent the loop from feeling monotonous by making every trip into the Source Code unique. He also relies greatly on star Jake Gyllenhaal to keep the audience invested, and it’s one of the actor’s best performances to date, providing the character with an Everyman quality that allows him to be serious without being humorless. The rest of the actors are just pawns in the story, but Vera Farmiga does add some depth to the thankless role of Stevens’ sympathetic handler. Not that the movie requires especially strong performances to work, because the real star is Jones himself, who proves here that he’s more than just a one-hit wonder. Your reaction to the movie will ultimately vary based on how you feel about its ending, but for fans of the sci-fi genre and time travel in particular, “Source Code” doesn’t disappoint.