Source Code rethinks Groundhog Day as a thriller, posing the question: what if, instead of covering a lame news story, Bill Murray had to stop a terrorist strike?
Canny psychological thrillers don’t come often enough, which makes Source Code a rare treat which recalls bits of Memento, Inception, and Hitchcock movies like North by Northwest.
For an Army captain named Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), the situation is getting stranger and stranger on a train. He awakens on a commuter railway car where a cute brunette (an especially warm and likeable Michelle Monaghan) is chatting with him like an old pal. He has no idea who she is and she seems to think he’s a guy named Sean Fentress. Yet when he looks in the mirror, he sees someone he doesn’t recognize (a different actor pops up as Gyllenhaal’s reflection, in the first of many simple but effectively unnerving touches). Moreover, the train he is on is never going to reach its destination in Chicago.
Capt. Stevens, a veteran of some heavy fighting in Afghanistan, finds out that he isn’t actually on the train; his body is locked inside what appears to be some kind of capsule where his only source of communication is with an Air Force captain named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) who gives him instructions over a TV monitor. Via her and her boss, a hesitant scientific mastermind named Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), Capt. Stevens finds out that his consciousness is being catapulted out of his mind and inserted into the body of Sean like a player in a video game. The scene on the train is a mere simulation of events that occurred before a major terrorist attack. It’s Capt. Stevens’s most vital mission to go into this simulation or Source Code to find out who is behind the impending strike, but he has only eight minutes to do so before the program ends and he has to start over.
One flaw with this usually smart and expertly paced film is that Stevens seems to have an infinite supply of chances to go back on the train to find out what is happening, albeit eight minutes at a time. Couldn’t anybody crack a mystery given enough time?
But as in Groundhog Day, each visit to the same situation plays out slightly differently as Stevens starts to piece clues together. One interlude is a waste of our time, when Stevens suspects a swarthy man of being the terrorist and harasses him. This situation is an obvious red herring because as all experienced moviegoers know, there is an all but total ban in Hollywood on presenting anyone who looks like he might be an Arab or a Muslim as a terrorist. (Suggestion for a brilliant whodunnit: Have a Muslim actually be guilty of something. It’ll be a shocker.)
The sci-fi and surreal aspects of the script are impressively handled by the director Duncan Jones, who as a baby was introduced to the world under the unfortunate 70s name of Zowie Bowie and is David Bowie’s son. (David Bowie’s real name is David Jones and the younger man’s full name is Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones). As in Jones’ first film, the cerebral thriller Moon, an isolated man finds himself lost in a coldly technological maze trying to find out more about his own identity. Both movies carefully marshal special effects, saving up weird images for singular, vivid moments.
In both cases, it’s a little unclear where the story is headed, and this too is a highly welcome trait at a time when too many films are far too predictable. Source Code lopes along so quickly that it seems to have things wrapped up early in the second hour, but at that point Jones becomes more interested in a soulful rumination on what’s happening inside Capt. Stevens’ mind. Though Jones doesn’t go terribly deep into the philosophical questions, he does bring in some notions about dignity, duty, and the bonds between fathers and sons that give the movie much more gravitas than the average popcorn picture, even if he misses an opportunity to give the terrorist strike an unexpected political shading. (Jones leaves the details behind the motive unsatisfyingly general.) Source Code isn’t flawless, but it is a lot of fun. For the most part it’s a gripping brain-teaser that rewards your intelligence instead of insulting it.