By my reckoning, there are three categories of moviegoer who will enjoy Source Code (Summit Entertainment), the new thriller from director Duncan Jones. 1) People who were devoted to Quantum Leap, the 1990s TV series starring a time-travelling Scott Bakula and a cigar-chomping Dean Stockwell, from which Source Code more or less borrows its premise. 2) Train-in-distress connoisseurs who are sick of re-watching the special features on the Unstoppable Blu-ray. 3) People who saw Jones’ debut film, the haunting science-fiction fable Moon (2009), and are inclined to cut this promising new director a little slack.
I belong to the last category. (OK, the last three categories.) Source Code lacks the eerie quiet and gallows humor of Moon, and there’s nothing here resembling Sam Rockwell’s bravura performance as a lonely lunar colonist. The new film has less Bradbury in its blood and more Bruckheimer: There are adequately staged explosions, a perfunctory romance between attractive young people (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan), and a not-entirely-surprising surprise ending. This is a movie that’s out to win a weekend, if only an early spring one.
Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) is a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who, for reasons I can’t reveal, because I don’t really understand them, has been selected to take part in an experimental program run by a shadowy, DARPA-esque wing of the military. A tetchy scientist named Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) and his more agreeable subordinate (Vera Farmiga) explain to Stevens that his mission is to thwart an imminent domestic terrorist attack. Someone has bombed a commuter train just outside of Chicago, and the bomber is poised to strike again. America’s best hope—no offense, Chicago Police Department!—is to teleport Stevens into the recent past, allowing him to inhabit the body and brain of one of the doomed commuters for precisely eight minutes. When those eight minutes are up, the bomb goes off, and Stevens is hurtled back to the present. If he hasn’t found the bomber, he has to go back to the train and do it all over again.
Confused? That’s the simple version. I skipped over the stuff about “time reassignment” and the fact that—according to the principles of quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus—the human brain functions like a light bulb, plus the existence of a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise on the train. (I called Metra, which operates Chicago’s commuter-rail service: The doughnut car, sadly, is pure science fiction.) As this pile-up of sci-fi tropes suggests, Jones, working from a script by the similarly inexperienced Ben Ripley, has bitten off a bit more chocolate glazed than he can chew.
That’s a shame, because the movie doesn’t need all the plot apparatuses that threaten to derail it. Though Source Code nods to Quantum Leap—Scott Bakula even makes a cameo, providing the voice of Stevens’ unseen father—the movie it more closely resembles, in both form and content, is Groundhog Day. Jones would’ve been well-served to take a cue from Harold Ramis’ classic by dwelling less on the mechanics of his magical premise.
Determining the identity of the bomber on a crowded train in a mere eight minutes is no easy feat, and Capt. Stevens is thus forced to relive those eight minutes again and again, until he gets them right, a Phil Connors of the rails. The danger in such a setup is boring your audience with all the repetition, but Jones carefully doles out the clues and steadily speeds up the pacing so that each iteration holds the viewer’s interest. I particularly enjoyed the trip in which Stevens slugs a commuter wearing a Bluetooth earpiece, thinking he’s the bomber—he isn’t, but that guy had a punch coming anyway.
It’s not just the repetition that evokes Groundhog Day. Like Bill Murray’s weatherman, Capt. Stevens has some demons that need exorcising. Years of combat in Afghanistan have left him ill-equipped to handle civilian life—he’s hollowed-out, angry, and violent. But just as Connors’ time in Punxsutawney has a purgatorial effect, so, too, do all those morning commutes allow Stevens to make moral as well as investigative progress. He comes to care not just about his mission but about the lives of his fellow commuters, especially the life of a comely young woman named Christina. (Played by Monaghan, who is only slightly less annoying than Andie MacDowell.)
It’s this emotional arc underlying the ticking-time-bomb plot that keeps the movie from succumbing to its flaws. And there are many. Farmiga is poorly served by the stilted dialogue (“This is Beleaguered Castle. Are you functional?”) and a uniform that looks more Delta Airlines than Delta Force. Jeffrey Wright treats his scenes as if they were screen tests for the role of mad scientist in some future, untitled M. Night Shyamalan project. The plot, particularly its last one-third, dissolves into nonsense at the merest scrutiny. Still, because we come to care about Stevens, and not just the successful execution of his mission, Source Code has a resonance that too many contemporary thrillers lack. Gyllenhaal invests Stevens with the simmering anger and grinning charm familiar to the genre, but also with a real sense of vulnerability.
Some unsolicited advice for Duncan Jones: Your outlook, as gleaned from your first two films, is perfectly suited to making great science fiction. You have a healthy fear of power-hungry institutions, tempered by faith in the basic goodness of individuals. You’re troubled by the unintended consequences that accompany scientific advance, but, reassuringly, your men tend to have a leg up on the machines. As such, your films are discomfiting without being dispiriting. Go back to the scale of Moon. Don’t let plot contrivances and trailer-candy explosions get in the way of your characters. Bet you a doughnut it works.