PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – A passenger wakes up on a train, confused and disoriented. There’s a bomb on the train that will go off in eight minutes. And he’s got strict orders that don’t involve getting off the train or preventing the explosion.
That’s the arresting setup of Source Code, a time-shifting science fiction thriller that’s in no hurry to make itself clear. That’s not a criticism, by the way. That’s what brainteasers do.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as decorated Air Force Captain Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot originally stationed in Afghanistan, who wakes up on the train heading to Chicago not knowing how he got there or why he’s there. And when he looks in the lavatory mirror, he realizes that he’s not who he thinks he is. At least not right now.
He eventually learns that he’s part of an experimental government anti-terrorism project called the “Source Code,” a mission that projects his consciousness into the body of an unknown, recently deceased man for the purpose of identifying which passenger on the commuter train already detonated the bomb that killed him sometime in the recent past, and who plans to set off an even more destructive bomb once the train reaches the Windy City.
Stevens cannot prevent the first bomb, but perhaps he can determine the culprit before the second is detonated.
He can repeat the experiment multiple times, but from the time he wakes up in another body, he has but eight minutes (the time span of the brain’s memory) before the body he is inhabiting will die. And he can pick up clues with each pass as he re-lives the same incident over and over again — while the plot advances incrementally — with hopes of preventing the catastrophe.
He has no chance of accomplishing that, he’s told, which he refuses to accept. But there is a time limit. This isn’t time travel, after all, the scientist explains, but time “realignment.”
Michelle Monaghan plays a woman Stevens befriends on the train, Jeffrey Wright the scientist in charge, and Vera Farmiga the scientist’s assistant and the captain’s supervisor.
The contrived but compelling script for director Duncan Jones’ second film — following his intriguing debut feature, the 2009 science fiction thriller, Moon, with Sam Rockwell – is by one Ben Ripley (believe it or not). Like Moon, Jones’ sophomore effort has a unique, idiosyncratic structure, despite its combining of the what-if spirit of Twilight Zone with the over-and-over editing structure of Groundhog Day, and with its narrative echoes of The Manchurian Candidate, Jacob’s Ladder, and Inception.
Director Jones (the son of David Bowie) throws us into the middle of things from the very first scene, so that we start off as disoriented as the protagonist, watching the movie kick into gear as a puzzle to be solved. The special effects are functional rather than decorative. Gyllenhaal is a charismatic, sympathetic leading man. And adroit editing keeps the film from feeling repetitive even though it obviously must be.
Pity that the payoff doesn’t live up to the buildup, with the denouement falling a bit flat and failing to deliver the cerebral or emotional punch it’s aiming for. But perhaps that’s inevitable in a movie that you can enjoy without exactly understanding the science (fiction) involved, and even as you question the internal logic of the film’s central conceit.
So we’ll rewind 2-1/2 stars out of 4 for Source Code, an absorbing ticking-clock techno-thriller that makes time fly whether you’re having fun or not.
Reported by Bill Wine, KYW Newsradio 1060