With Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden. Directed by Duncan Jones. Rated PG-13 for some violence including disturbing images, and for language. 93 minutes.
SOURCE CODE continues not only the impressive line-up of science fiction films that have been released thus far this year; it is also an equally impressive follow-up to director Duncan Jones’ stunning 2009 debut feature, “Moon.” As with the earlier film, it features a hero faced with a task that threatens to psychologically destroy him who is forced to find resources within himself to take back control of his life. Two films probably are not enough to identify this as a theme in Jones’s work, but this marks him as a young director who is well worth watching.
Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a Chicago-bound train where the woman he’s with, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), seems to know him, but not as Stevens. When he sees his reflection, he discovers he’s somebody else. Something odd is happening, but before Stevens can figure it out the train explodes in a horrific terrorist attack. Oddly, Stevens does not die in the explosion but wakes up in a strange cell where Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) is explaining to him that he has been sent back in time to try to figure out who set the bomb so that they can catch him before he does even greater damage.
The catch? Stevens has only eight minutes to do it, and if he fails he will be sent back again to go through the same eight minutes. As Stevens grasps what’s being asked of him, he also reels against what he is told are the immutable rules: he can’t change the past. He wants to not only uncover the terrorist but save the people on the train, including Christina with whom the person’s whose life he has taken over seems to be in some sort of relationship.
This is the dark side of “Groundhog Day,” where each visit to the past helps him learn things but inevitably leads to death. Indeed, if these are alternate realities rather than simply going through the same eight minutes each time, there is a lot of death. Yet Stevens refuses to accept the rules that Goodwin and her boss (Jeffrey Wright) give him, leading to conflict and some interesting twists. By film’s end you’ll have to decide what it all means. The story is clearly resolved, even if all the questions are not.
As with Sam Rockwell in “Moon,” the weight of the film falls on Gyllenhaal, who has to deal the demands of the thriller plot as well as the psychic pain of a character who is being used in a good cause but without any choice in the matter. Is doing good enough, or do the needs of the individual count for something as well? The supporting cast is solid, too, from Monaghan’s sunny Christina to Farmiga’s conflicted Goodwin, but if you care at all it’s because of Gyllenhaal’s Stevens struggling not to crack under the pressure.
“Source Code” is an exciting, intelligent thriller that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Perhaps Hollywood is trying to atone in advance for a summer movie season that will be wall-to-wall superheroes, talking Cars and yet another “Transformers” movie.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.