Director Duncan Jones (Moon) builds on his reputation as a science fiction auteur with Source Code (2011), a flawed but compelling skiffy action film that repositions Groundhog Day as a post 9/11 thriller. (Pardon me, Film, your high concept is showing…) While resorting to wonky pseudo-science and an ending that feels ruthlessly screen-tested, it mostly delivers on its promise, thanks largely to taut construction and effective performances.
When Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens on a Chicago-bound commuter train, he’s baffled to find that the woman across from him, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), knows him. But whereas Stevens knows himself as a helicopter pilot in the army, Christina knows him as Sean Fentris, a school teacher. He’s even more confused when the train explodes, transporting him to the future. There, secured in a cockpit-like capsule, he communicates with good-cop military officer Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and her bad-cop scientist overseer Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), who inform him that he is being projected back in time (sort of) to the last eight minutes of Sean Fentris’ life before the train explosion. His mission is to identify the bomber, in order to prevent further, imminent terrorist attacks.
What follows is a sequence of sequences, as you might expect: with each journey back, Stevens’ approach to the eight minutes changes, and his investigation of the mystery advances incrementally. Meanwhile his relationships, both romantically with Christina and professionally with Goodwin, advance as well. As he frantically goes about accomplishing the mission, he also gradually comes to understand his own predicament, and works toward his own fulfillment — to the extent that he can.
The film doesn’t seem particularly interested in its premise’s mechanics, which aren’t believably explained; Dr. Rutledge’s awkward infodumps are mostly just lip service, a means to an end. But once you swallow the idea, the rest is well executed, fun stuff. Jones seems to have a knack for giving contemporary projects a classic feel; if Moon felt like an updated Twilight Zone episode, Source Code feels like a modernized Hitchcock movie. This impression, enhanced by the soundtrack, is borne of the generally tense proceedings, the careful shot construction, and the overall craft.
Gyllenhaal makes an effective and accessible hero here, equally adept at the film’s frantic, romantic, and comedic angles. Michelle Monaghan is very good as his spirited, witty love interest. And the great Vera Farmiga (yes, I admit it — definitely have a screen-crush!) is better than her role as Stevens’ sympathetic handler, bringing a piercing, subdued intelligence to her stiff military bearing. I think the casting of these roles is hugely important to the film’s success, and all three are perfect.
Yes, the premise is wobbly, and the ending bails on its sad-happy ending for a wimpier, crowd-pleasing happy-happy ending. But overall, it’s a fun, timebending thrill-ride, well performed and tightly constructed.