Drawing on time-shifting concepts reminiscent of "Groundhog Day" and "Run Lola Run," Duncan Jones' "Source Code" inhabits the spirit of old-school sci-fi while effectively providing a measure of pathos. As he did in his prior film, "Moon," "Source Code" showcases Jones' ability to provide ample entertainment value with sharply drawn characters in a minimalist setting.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Capt. Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot originally stationed in Afghanistan who abruptly finds himself on a train just before it blows sky high. Traumatized, he awakes in a shadowy chamber. On a screen in front of him, commanding officer Carol Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) interrogates the soldier about his experience, which seems to be a fabricated event that he must endure in a parallel reality.
And then, with the click of a button, Stevens' controllers hurl him back into the Chicago-bound train eight minutes before an undiscovered bomb kills everyone on board. He soon learns that he is returning to the scene of the crime to discover the bomb (which he does rather quickly) and the culprit (a greater challenge). Stuck in a dangerous loop, his detective skills quickly take root. Since he must also divine the conditions of the experiment thrust upon him, Stevens (and the audience) is in the center of an existential brain teaser.
Still, "Source Code" never turns into the fast-paced thriller that the plot might suggest. The movie maintains a real-time feel throughout its 93 minutes, despite returning to the train at least a half-dozen times. Ben Ripley's screenplay (cited on the 2007 Blacklist) focuses on a small cast of personalities and explores how the ticking clock impacts their behavior.
As Stevens returns to the ill-fated train, he begins to fall for the soul-searching girl (Michelle Monoghan) sitting across the aisle and second-guesses the motives of the tight-lipped military overlords who keep sending him back. With Stevens' conundrum as the movie's central perspective, we take the head trip with him. Since he must decipher developments with only the information at his disposal, he's always an unreliable narrator, allowing for the possibility of a game-changing twist at any given moment.
In between his lethal outings on the train, Stevens finds himself in a surreal enclosure that mirrors his confused state of mind. The compact, almost theatrical set creates a remarkable sense of confinement, much like last year's coffin-set "Buried." In both cases, a man stuck in a solitary environment and speaking to voices from afar creates constant tension.
Hardly a big-budget action spectacle (the CGI looks good enough, but not top-of-the-line), "Source Code" is a lower-key younger brother to "Inception." It has the complex infrastructure of top-tier science fiction cinema while toying with blockbuster formula. Trumpets blare, things explode, a villain is out to destroy the world -- but everything relies on Gyllenhaal's successful embodiment of a man who must come to grips with his own mortality and learn to make every second count.
Sounds cheesy, but intellect underlines the sincerity. Where "Inception" had plenty of smarts but little heart, "Source Code" has both, delivering a life-affirming message while playing it cool. Screenwriter Ripley occasionally overindulges in the ramifications of the imaginary technology ("We finally have a powerful weapon in the war on terror," enthuses the crazed head scientist played by Jeffrey Wright), but the pulpy content adds to the film's oddball allure.
Like "Moon," where Sam Rockwell spent most of the time talking to himself within a lunar enclosure, the cumulative dramatic effect of "Source Code" relies on an isolated character learning to escape the infrastructure that holds him down. The film's otherworldly premise does push a high concept past its breaking point, but the emotional core is grounded in universal themes and allows the film to geek out with compassion to spare. The appeal of "Source Code" requires a willingness to decipher it while enjoying the ride.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Probably too weird for mainstream audiences and too sentimental for positive critical consensus, "Source Code" should still find enough appreciative audiences to play decently at the box office for a week or so, with an inevitably strong DVD reception to follow.
criticWIRE grade: A-
This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of SXSW. "Source Code" opens wide this Friday, April 1.