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Air Force pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is having a bad day. He’s woken onboard a Chicago commuter train sitting opposite the pretty Christina (Michelle Monaghan), in a train car full of suspicious passengers, and he has just eight minutes to uncover a terrorist who, eight minutes from now, will blow up the train in what is the first in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks on the country. And oh yeah, he doesn’t remember how he got there, since his trips through something called the “source code”, a Government Matrix doohickey thingamagig that can send someone’s consciousness back in time to assume the identity of a recently deceased person (or some such), has left him with fragmented memories. Plus, time is running out, and another terrorist attack is imminent.
Of course, it probably doesn’t help Colter that Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), the Air Force lady monitoring the Source Code and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the gimpy, douchebaggey civilian overseeing the project, take the firm stand that the few minutes necessary to fill in Colter’s blank spots aren’t worth the trouble. Instead, they keep telling him that needing to tell him is a waste of time, when they could have simply, well, just told the guy so he would stop asking questions, and thus, waste even more time. This is obviously questionable screenwriting on the part of writer Ben Ripley, though director Duncan Jones, in his sophomore effort post-“Moon”, powers on through with effortless ease. In many ways, that is “Source Code’s” primary skill — it’s such a fast-moving, slick time travel story that it manages to overcome much of its shortcomings.
Like “Groundhog Day” before it, “Source Code’s” primary treat is its many deja vu moments, as each time Colter is thrown back into the past, his attempts to avert the coming disaster must take different routes since he keeps failing, and failing means dying, and dying, even if you’re not really dying, still kinda sucks. Through each pass, he comes to appreciate the cute stranger sitting across from him more and more. Michelle Monaghan is very good as the love interest, and there is actually some nice chemistry between her and Gyllenhaal. He doesn’t get to hop around onscreen like in his parkour-filled days on “The Prince of Persia”, but Gyllenhaal still turns in a fine performance as a believable action hero. Mind you, not that his Colter Stevens goes overly Rambo on anyone in the movie, but he is credible as a military man on a mission.
Curiously, “Source Code” does a very odd thing and drops its Big Reveal by the halfway point. Usually this is the kind of movie where the payoff is saved for the very last few minutes of the movie, but Jones and Ben Ripley have something else saved for their Third Act, and surprisingly, it has nothing to do with revealing the deep, dark, and somewhat depressing secrets of the Source Code. Instead, the film marches deliberately toward a very human, non-techie finale that, in many ways, feels somewhat anti-climactic. It’s as if Jones and Ripley know that audiences are expecting a rip-roaring thriller that takes its suspense right to the very end, and as a result are determined to do something different.
As science fiction goes, “Source Code” has all the necessary ingredients to tell an engaging, if farfetched story. I’ve seen featurettes that try to tell me “Source Code’s” story is plausible, but of course, that’s all Hollywood malarkey. Mind you, not that I’ve docked the film points for this. When a film offers up a time-travel can of worms, you essentially have to just swallow the conceit and go with it, or else you’ve wandered into the wrong movie theater. Like the recent Denzel Washington movie “Deja Vu”, the make-up science in “Source Code” is just the excuse to tell an engaging thriller. Jeffrey Wright even seems keenly aware that he’s Mister Exposition, and has an amusingly short explanation of what the Source Code is. Just think of the film as the big-screen version of the sci-fi TV show “7 Days”, where the show’s hero is shot into space in a circular, futuristic device and zapped into the past — but only into the last 7 days. You either just go with it, or you don’t.
You gotta give “Source Code” credit for its out of left field Third Act, though. I have to admit, it caught me by surprise that the movie was giving up its Big Reveal so soon, but as it headed into its final 20 minutes, it became obvious why. The film has more story to tell, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with saving a commuter train or Downtown Chicago from a mad bomber. In fact, the whole bombing plot actually seemed like an afterthought by the hour mark, leaving Duncan Jones to tell a very human story about what it means to live, ponder the existence of fate, and yeah, indulge in some charming romance with its two leads.
In just two short years, Duncan Jones has made two very good movies. Needless to say, I am dying to see what he does next.
Duncan Jones (director) / Ben Ripley (screenplay)
CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal … Colter Stevens
Michelle Monaghan … Christina Warren
Vera Farmiga … Colleen Goodwin
Jeffrey Wright … Dr. Rutledge
Michael Arden … Derek Frost
Cas Anvar … Hazmi
Russell Peters … Max Denoff