Source Code

Opening with a series of aerial shots of Chicago and its surroundings, as a train speeds through towards the city while ominous music fills the soundtrack, “Source Code” suggests some kind of railroad disaster film. Then we see Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Captain Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot stationed in Afghanistan who just woke up on that train, thoroughly confused about where he is, what time it is and, it turns out, who he is, and the movie slowly but surely reveals itself to be full-on, mind-bending science-fiction, involving quantum mechanics, the nature of short-term memory, the post-mortem “afterglow” of the brain’s synapses, “time reassignment” and whatnot.

For you see, our soldier hero has actually woken up into the mind of a random passenger (glimpsed here and there as Québécois actor Frédérick De Grandpré), with the ability to use the guy as an avatar during the last 8 minutes of his life, that is before a bomb blows up the train and everyone on board. Unbeknownst to him, Stevens has been recruited by the mysterious Source Code program, who’s given him the mission to go through these last 8 minutes over and over until he discovers the identity of the bomber, who has planned another terrorist attack later that day in downtown Chicago, threatening millions of lives…

As written by Ben Ripley, “Source Code” is a high-concept tale with an intriguing premise that requires suspension of disbelief, of course, but which is developed in ways that earn it. Through the various twists and revelations that come up, the film’s internal logic remains pretty sound, if not airtight, and it kept me engrossed almost all the way through. Maybe because even though elements of it link it to such out-there flicks as “12 Monkeys”, “Groundhog Day”, “Run Lola Run”, “Inception” and “Donnie Darko” (though the latter might just be due to the presence of Gyllenhaal!), ultimately, “Source Code” works as a sci-fi twist on a Hitchcock-style thriller. Because when you get right down to it, the premise is as simple as it is suspenseful: it’s one man looking for another on a train before a bomb goes off… Except that it uses sort of a video game structure where, every time the protagonist fails/dies, he’s able to start over and go through the “level” again until he gets it right.

Clever and gripping writing is one thing but, in a movie like this, to quite an extent, it’s all about the execution. Thankfully, director Duncan Jones nails it, throwing us immediately into that doomed train and making us experience the narrative in a similar fashion to Gyllenhaal’s character, who has no idea what’s going on at first and only acquires information gradually through his mission. By using lots of point-of-view shots, Jones further puts us right into the action, encouraging us to also observe everyone and everything every time we go through those last 8 minutes on the train, trying to piece things together before it’s too late.

Jake Gyllenhaal gives an intense, driven performance as Captain Colter Stevens, who’s hardly a boy scout. In fact, he’s a bit of an impulsive asshole à la Jack Bauer, who’s very much willing to rough up anyone who’s the least bit suspicious. This gives much of the film an unpredictable, volatile quality, as our hero bucks and bolts, not only when he’s in the virtual reality of the train, but also against the authority figures of the Source Code program (Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) who refuse to give him all the facts about his situation.

I was initially not sure about the decision to weave a love story into it, but it’s fortunately not too much of a distraction and, as played by Michelle Monaghan, the romantic interest is pleasant enough. The film’s sentimental streak, which also includes a back-story about Colter’s father, who disapproved of him going into the military, actually makes “Source Code” more involving, not the opposite.

To me, the one flaw of this smartly conceived, well-crafted science-fiction thriller was the finish. The filmmakers did find a perfect ending (the freeze frame – you’ll see) but, for some reason, “Source Code” then keeps going pointlessly for 5 more minutes. Quit while you’re ahead, movie!