In Source Code, the nature of time and space becomes stranger on a train
by Jared Peterson
In the action/sci-fi head scratcher Source Code, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a military helicopter pilot who wakes up after a crash landing to discover that he’s been drafted for a very different mission. A bomb has been detonated on a commuter train into Chicago, killing everyone on board. This is confirmed to be just a warning shot, a precursor to a massive terrorist attack on the city. But a secret program codenamed Beleaguered Castle has a novel anti-terror weapon in its arsenal. Using a technology called the Source Code, they can project Stevens’ consciousness into the body of one of the deceased passengers on the train, essentially allowing him to live the last eight minutes of the man’s life. His task is to use those final moments to find the bomb and the bomber so authorities can prevent the next attack.
As happens with these kinds of things, there are limitations. He can interact with the passengers, and seemingly cause or even change events. But he cannot rewrite history—when his time is up he is violently propelled back to a present where nothing has changed: the train is still destroyed, the people are still dead and the city is still doomed unless he succeeds.
At first, he applies himself with discipline, enduring numerous fiery deaths as he inches toward the truth. But as the clock ticks in both past and present, questions about how and why he was chosen and the true limitations of his role become harder to put aside. He remains trapped in some jury-rigged version of his cockpit; his only contact with Beleaguered Castle and the outside world is through an Air Force officer (Vera Farmiga) on a TV screen who remotely guides him through his trips and helps him deal with his disorientation when he returns. But is she telling him everything, and would it make a difference if he knew?
On the other side, meanwhile, he is getting to know his fellow passengers, especially Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a lovely colleague of the man he inhabits, with whom he was having the flirtatious beginnings of… something. In trusting or suspecting these people, he begins to understand them. His duty begins to be altered by curiosity and compassion, and the human equation brings him (and the audience) to question the rigidity of the laws of time and space.
With Source Code, director Duncan Jones (Moon) and screenwriter Ben Ripley have appropriated some of the more intriguing and enjoyable elements of several films—The Matrix, Solaris, the Mission: Impossible series as well as Murder on the Orient Express and even (and especially) Groundhog Day—and joined them in a story that manages to engage the audience on both visceral and philosophical levels. Compared with the Escheresque mind trip of last year’s Inception, Source Code’s economy of scope—eight minutes on a single train car—and its emotional accessibility are welcome and endearing. (Inception’s convoluted plot and tiramisu of layered time frames were fascinating, yes, but nearly impenetrable, even with large chunks of the film given over to characters explaining them to one another.) And since the Source Code technology is only vaguely defined, viewers are offered a break from science to focus on the fiction.
Colter Stevens is not really a fully developed character; he’s more of a cipher, a Gyllenhaal-shaped hole into which we can project our own sense of humanity—but one that Gyllenhaal makes a warm and inviting space to be. And it is no insult to her to say that Michelle Monaghan is one of the most skilled and watchable damsels in distress in movies today. Taken together, they are also two of the prettiest humans alive, and it’s difficult to accept that the vagaries of space and time would prevent their characters from coming together and making adorable babies. Jeffrey Wright is great as Rutledge, director of the Source Code program and a perfectly pitched amalgam of two classic sci-fi/action tropes: the blunt, asocial scientific genius and the scheming, amoral company man. It’s rare that an actor has a chance to project gravelly-voiced cool while wearing an ill-fitting tweed sport coat—he’s like Morpheus from The Matrix recast as a GS-12 paper pusher in some Defense Department basement. And Vera Farmiga is fantastic as usual. There is something about Farmiga that always makes me want to see another film just about her character—here she brings depth and a certain sadness to a role that could have easily been dismissed as a glorified Time-Life operator.
Source Code is rated PG-13. There is some profanity and some unsettling destructive imagery, including several violent, consuming explosions and some mangled body parts.