And for his next act, Duncan Jones — writer/director of the art-house sci-fi hit “Moon” — presents “Source Code,” another confidently entertaining tale of identity-based angst. “Source Code” is less introspective and ambitious than Jones’ first film, but it’s also more mainstream and accessible, in all the best ways.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Colter Stevens, an Army pilot who wakes up after a crash in Afghanistan to find himself involved in a military experiment that allows the subject to see the last eight minutes of a recently deceased person’s life — to basically live as that person for those final moments. What is the advantage of this? Apart from being a cool thing to do, you could theoretically inhabit a murder victim’s mind and determine who murdered him.
That’s what Stevens is doing. A Chicago-bound commuter train was blown up by terrorists this morning; Stevens is reliving the final eight minutes of one passenger’s life, observing fellow passengers to see if he can figure out who planted the bomb. He can’t prevent it from exploding — he can’t change the past. He isn’t traveling through time, exactly. He’s just experiencing an event through someone else’s eyes, and with additional knowledge that that person didn’t have.
Each eight-minute attempt ends with everyone on the train dying, followed by Stevens waking up, safe and sound, “Avatar”-style, back in the military facility. An officer named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) fills him in on what’s happening, but only gradually: Mostly her job is to sit in a chair and tell Stevens that everything except the mission at hand — learning who blew up the train so other attacks can be prevented — is irrelevant. Lumped into the “irrelevant” category are such details as what happened to Stevens in Afghanistan, the extent of his injuries, whether his family has been notified, how this bizarre technology was developed, and so forth.
On the train, Stevens finds that he — that is to say, the person whose mind he quantum-leaped into, whose reflection he sees in the mirror — is traveling with a friend, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). With shades of “Groundhog Day,” Stevens gets to know her pretty well over the course of those repeated eight minutes. Too bad there’s no way to change the explode-y outcome.
Gyllenhaal is well-cast as the tormented action hero, bringing sensitivity (if not great depth) to the role, while Farmiga and Monaghan do the best they can in their thankless roles. There’s also Jeffrey Wright as the vaguely sinister architect of the project, whose motivations could use further examination.
On its surface, “Source Code” is a high-energy, moderately intelligent thriller about righting wrongs and atoning for the past. (To that end, Stevens has issues with his father that need to be resolved.) The film might have deeper subtext that could be unpacked with additional viewings … but I suspect there’s an equal chance that the whole thing would fall apart under scrutiny. Where “Moon,” which Jones wrote, had a dazzling ingenuity to it, “Source Code” (written by Ben Ripley) is more workmanlike. Jones doesn’t apply much personality to the mind-bending ideas, and they could use a little gussying-up. It is fun to contemplate where he’ll go next, though.
B (1 hr., 33 min.; )