Silver Screen: Source Code ****1/2
The cerebral sci-fi thriller Source Code kicks off with a rush of action and big ideas. Army pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a commuter train sitting across from a strange woman (Michelle Monaghan) with no idea how he got there. Eight minutes later, before he can even begin to get his bearings, the train explodes, killing everyone, and Stevens wakes up in another, even more foreign place: strapped into a chair in a dank metal capsule, able to communicate only with a video feed of fellow soldier Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). Utterly disoriented, Stevens struggles to understand Goodwin's message: He's part of a high-tech military experiment, dazed by the effects of having been sent back several hours in time to inhabit the body of a random man killed in a train explosion. His job is to search the train and discover the identity of the bomber, but not to stop the device from detonating. And with little preparation he's zapped back in time, back onto the train, with another eight minutes to do the job.
It's a tantalizingly mysterious beginning full of unanswered questions, and just when you think you've figured out the rhythm of the movie-- Stevens will relive this eight minutes over and over, à la Groundhog Day, until he can fulfill his mission and help prevent later terrorist attacks-- screenwriter Ben Ripley spins the story into phenomenally weird territory with a series of twists it's hard to imagine anyone seeing coming.
The less revealed about the film's intricate plot, the better, so let's leave it at this: Ripley is able to subvert the time-travel paradoxes with the cool idea that Stevens is not so much literally travelling back in time but rather acting as a tourist in events that have already happened via a procedure called the Source Code, created by an antisocial physicist (Jeffrey Wright). The film takes a turn into the sublimely strange when Stevens begins to use his eight-minute trips back into the past as a means of escaping the closed capsule to solve the riddle of his own place in the Source Code project, which creates a set of parallel mysteries he must solve.
It sounds complicated, and it is, somewhat, but director Duncan Jones does a fantastic job of juggling the big ideas in such a way that the plot remains shrouded in intrigue without ever being too baffling. The mad-bomber plot that would be the focus of similar movies here takes a back seat to a series of far more interesting questions about the nature of self and reality.
Jones's first film was the truly impressive Moon, in which a solitary mining-company employee tapping a mineral repository on the moon is startled by the inexplicable appearance of a visitor who appears to be another version of himself. Echoes of that excellent head trip abound in Source Code, where Gyllenhaal is similarly stranded and the themes of isolation and the limits of perspective resonate once again. If Moon was a Kubrickian riff on these notions, Source Code is a faster-paced version channeling Philip K. Dick.
What's most impressive about Jones's followup film is not that he's able to synthesize and ultimately (mostly) make sense of the wild ideas, but that he's able to move past pure plot machinations and deliver a significant emotional impact. Neither Kubrick nor Dick, for all their psychological concerns, were ever able to tap into deep veins of humanism-- Dick's best attempt at it, in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (made into the classic film Blade Runner), provides the robot's perspective on the conundrum. But for all the computers and wires and biotech, there's a beating heart at the center of Source Code, and in the film's later moments Jones is able to tap into a deep well of feeling. The movie's penultimate sequence shuns visceral thrills in favor of an emotional climax that transcends the earlier mental stuntwork.
The inevitable debate will be whether the movie's final twist is superfluous, upsets the established plot construct, or cleverly folds the movie back in on itself one more time in a devious act of cinematic origami. Decide for yourself. But beware, you'll likely feel the need to immediately beam yourself back to the beginning, like Gyllenhaal's resilient and compassionate explorer of the mind, back into the Source Code.