Source Code will likely go down as the Groundhog Day of convoluted, mind-bending sci-fi thrillers. And hey, that’s not such a bad thing. Groundhog Day was awesome — and so, in its way, is Source Code. Here we have a film that pulls together notions of quantum physics, the space-time continuum, and other ideas far above my head, and firmly plants itself within them, crafting a story that at times seems to strain credulity, but then that’s part of the ride. These ideas seem beyond our common understanding of the real world, but Source Code has a way of making us question our confidence in real-world understanding. Maybe all this is possible — and if it is, we should go straight to work stopping trains from blowing up.
That is the precise scenario at the center of a film: a train has exploded, the result of an apparent terrorist bombing, and a shrouded sect of the U.S. military has applied a revolutionary new method of discovering the culprit and preventing subsequent attacks. That method revolves around “Source Code,” a formula that utilizes brain patterns and brief sections of human memory to explore the tragedy as it happened, thereby identifying its root cause and, more importantly, its perpetrator.
According to Source Code’s creator, Dr. Rutledge (an intellectually-menacing Jeffrey Wright), the practice combines the eight-minute situational memory span of the human mind with the momentary brainpower that remains after a person’s death to effectively recreate the final minutes before a catastrophic incident. A trained soldier is plunged into the situation as an “avatar” of sorts, assuming the embodiment of a person of similar physical make-up, and interacts within the realm to determine who is responsible for the crime in question. In this case, that soldier is Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), an Afghanistan veteran who was seemingly placed into the Source Code without his knowledge, and whose confusion mirrors our own. He is our avatar, so to speak, as he travels through the final eight minutes before the Chicago-bound train tragically explodes. In repeated eight-minute intervals, Colter enters the Source Code, investigates the situation, and is then jolted back into “real life,” such as it seems, inside the non-descript capsule that transports him into the train scenario. When cognizant in the capsule, our hero takes orders from both Rutledge and his chief underling, Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who is more sympathetic to Colter’s humanity.
That humanity is put to an unexpected test within the Source Code, as Colter assumes the body of a passenger who was apparently engaged in a hesitant puppy love relationship with his colleague, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). As he re-lives the eight-minute sequence again and again, Colter begins to fall for Christina himself, while at the same time struggling to unearth the identity of the bomber.
Confused yet? The film might actually be less infuriating than its synopsis. As densely convoluted as Source Code‘s plot is, there is always an understandable branch to latch onto. The film doesn’t deal in logic, but it also doesn’t let the audience sit in complete befuddlement. To the contrary, as the film wears on, some of Wright’s monologues verge on becoming overly-expository, but in truth none of the exposition bogs the story down. Ben Ripley, the screenwriter, knows the difference between what is necessary to reveal and what needs to be left secret, slowly unveiling twists that deepen our understanding of the situation and draw us closer to our hero.
As that hero, Gyllenhaal maintains a delicate balance of naivete and confidence, of professional insecurity and personal resolve. In a film that threatens to collapse under the intense weight of its scientific plot, the focus remains intensely on its central character. And as a literal lost soul on a dogged mission who finds love while slowly achieving self-actualization — quite a heavy load for a single character — Gyllenhaal never misses a beat. From the innocent cluelessness with which he enters the Source Code to the unwavering assurance with which he aims to transcend the ultimate purpose of his mission, through comedic missteps to charming romantic asides, the actor imbues Colter with the unmistakably identifiable notion of human discovery. In an exaggerated sci-fi setting, Gyllenhaal grounds the film in his infuriating plight.
Source Code was directed by Duncan Jones, whose feature debut, 2009′s Moon, was a minimalist gem about identity in the vast loneliness of outer space. Here Jones tackles slightly more ambitious territory on a technical level, but the thematic core of the film feels like Moon‘s natural descendant. This time out there is more traditional action, tangible villainy, and obviously a generous handful of CGI explosions, but the heart of the story remains a man with a clear directive whose ultimate mission is to discover the true nature of his existence.