Source Code is rock-solid science-fiction, conceptually brilliant and executed with tightly-wound precision. This is director Duncan Jones’ follow-up to Moon, a similarly twisty and ambitious sci-fi think piece that was quietly insinuating where this one sustains the relentless pace of a thrill ride. It confirms that Jones is the real deal – a skilled technician and a thoughtful, clear-eyed storyteller.
The gimmick is that technology allows a soldier (Jake Gyllenhaal) to inhabit the body of another man for the span of eight minutes just prior to a catastrophic terrorist attack on a train earlier that day. He can repeat the eight minutes as many times as he likes, but his mission isn’t to prevent the attack, which he is told is impossible. (He is not actually time-traveling, we learn, but viewing something like an afterimage of the prior events). He may, however, be able to ferret out the bomber, thereby preventing a subsequent, imminent, even more devastating bombing.
Source Code’s plot prescribes its structure: we see the same events again and again as Gyllenhaal’s Captain Colter Stevens attempts to solve the mystery of the train attack. The concept is a clever filmmaker’s dream: the varied repetition all but guarantees a breakneck pace, leavened with the familiar humor of frustration. Gyllenhaal may be playing an elite soldier, but he interprets the role as that of a Hitchcockian everyman who finds himself in an extraordinary high-stakes situation, and it’s a pleasure to watch him improvise. Jones stages the action scenes with unpretentious competence, and Chris Bacon provides a booming, old-fashioned musical score.
But the movie is more than the gimmick, and it quickly becomes apparent that the mystery of the train bomber is at best secondary. Because: who is Colter Stevens? Between his trips back in time, we see that he is locked in some sort of capsule – where is he? How did he get there? Who are the man and the woman (Geoffrey Wright and Vera Farmiga) giving him orders on the video screen?
Here, the film’s structure takes on a deeper significance. Source Code is ultimately a withering and incisive allegory about American wars in the Middle East, and our callous and unfeeling demands of the soldiers who fight them; our insistent subordination of the human toll the war has taken on the armed forces to other, supposedly bigger concerns. Spending day after day scouring Iraqi streets for roadside bombs, waiting for one of them to blow up in your face, is surely akin to being forced to relive the same nightmare, again and again and again.
Source Code has other things on its mind, too, but I will keep its secrets. It should be said that Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley blow right past a pitch-perfect ending in favor of five additional minutes that only muddy the narrative and thematic waters. But this is a minor disappointment at the end of a painstakingly constructed, uncommonly intelligent film.