Someday the mysterious government operatives who invented the time-travel techniques in the twisty brainteaser action-thriller Source Code ought to meet up for some shop talk with the mysterious entrepreneurs who invented the dream-travel techniques in the twisty brainteaser action-thriller Inception. I'd love to hear the Source Code guys explain to their sci-fi peers exactly how their neural gadgetry enables a participant's brainpower and consciousness to cross over into the body of another man in the last eight minutes of that other man's life. As it is, I'll have to take the futuristic science on faith along with the plot holes in this good-looking, diverting, overly jiggered adventure. And I'll accept the premise that decorated Army helicopter pilot Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) inexplicably finds himself on a Chicago commuter train tasked with finding out who on the train planted the bomb that, eight minutes later, will destroy the very train he's on. Whoever it is is also planning a second, bigger, even more destructive act of terrorism in the heart of the city. Is it the angry wannabe comedian (played by real comic Russell Peters)? Is it the suspiciously sweating, swarthy-skinned businessman (Cas Anvar)? Who's Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the attractive woman sitting opposite Stevens on the train, chatting as if she knows him? And why, when Stevens is in the lavatory, does he play a Marx Brothers mime game with an unknown face in the mirror? Is that strange reflection his...avatar?
If Stevens finds the bomber in time, he can prevent that second catastrophe. And so, while the soldier's own body is holed up in cramped quarters, his consciousness is guided into the past and into the body of a stranger by his handler (Vera Farmiga, doing what she can with a character mostly seen as a face on a computer monitor) and her boss (Jeffrey Wright, projecting weird comic-villain voodoo into his bit as a Shadowy Government Type). Stevens is projected, time after Groundhog Day time, into those last eight minutes, enduring explosion after explosion until he can solve the crime.
The Inception guys would understand all this perfectly, even as the audience is left scrambling to untangle the plot twists on the way out of the movie theater. Myself, I'm rapidly tiring of pinball storytelling constructions that substitute cerebral fanciness of format for the weight of emotional content. But hold that thought for eight minutes.
Source Code, directed by Duncan Jones from a buzzing, talky original screenplay by Ben Ripley (Species III), is the bigger-budget follow-up to Jones' cool, haunting, self-contained 2009 debut feature, Moon. The filmmaker's fondness and real knack for sci-fi is evident in the way he keeps things rolling, having fun with the confines of the train car (and the claustrophobic pod Stevens inhabits between missions) the same way Jones got a kick out of Sam Rockwell's isolation aboard a spaceship in Moon. Stevens fails until he succeeds, and each explosion is a pleasurable shock. Each repetition of unfolding events, altered as Stevens gains a finer understanding of his surroundings, is a nifty little scenario, held together by nimble work from Gyllenhaal. Among all the chess-piece players on the board, the star is the only one who really builds a solid emotional foundation for his character. After his Goldilocksian casting misadventures in Prince of Persia and Love & Other Drugs, the role is an excellent fit which is no doubt why Gyllenhaal grabbed the script for himself and brought it to Jones. As a result, we care about Stevens more and more, and the investment pays off for (most of) the final leg of the journey.
I wish we could have cared more about Monaghan's Christina and the love that is meant to be growing between her and Stevens with every repetition. But the character is just another support vehicle for the story she's the Girl and Monaghan can't do much besides look concerned as her seatmate behaves oddly.
Source Code bats around interesting philosophical ideas about the elasticity of time, and the director finds moments of humor in unlikely corners of that train of fools. The movie is also, as time goes by, about less than it thinks it is. So my question for that Source Code–Inception summit I was dreaming about would be: Is emotional disposability built into the structure of a movie like this? You know, like a source code? B+