Source Code, Duncan Jones’ follow-up to Moon, takes a similar interest in the more humane dilemmas of out-there sci-fi concepts. It’s another tale of a man isolated from his loved ones, forced to wrestle with his past regrets and present limitations in order to preserve the future. But while that film was a pensive drama set against the stars, this is a casually brainy and surprisingly thoughtful blockbuster effort set on Earth, in which Jones works from a Ben Ripley screenplay that is ultimately as much about saving the day as seizing it.
The last thing Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) knew, he was piloting a Black Hawk helicopter in Afghanistan. Now he’s aboard a Chicago commuter train, seated opposite a woman (Michelle Monaghan) he doesn’t know who sure seems to know him, completely disoriented and wholly unprepared for an explosion to rock the train and kill everyone on board. Stevens then finds himself confined to a mysterious capsule elsewhere, only being gradually told by cryptic handler Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) that he has been reassigned to the body of a stranger who died in the explosion and will be forced to endure the eight-minute scenario multiple times in an effort to locate the bomb and, more importantly, the bomber before he or she strikes again.
The technology that permits such handicapped hindsight is the “source code” of the title, invented by Dr. Rutledge (a growly Jeffrey Wright) to help the government investigate disasters and prevent new ones, and this mission, which Stevens finds himself thrust into, forces him to adapt from a solider into a detective determined to solve not only the imminent mystery of the train bombing, but also the puzzling circumstances under which he’s become an unwitting victim to attack after attack after attack.
Thanks in no small part to Paul Hirsch’s sharp editing and Chris Bacon’s rousing score, the parallel mysteries unfold with a sense of precision and propulsion, helping to navigate the viewer through a dense web of implications and complications that would threaten to sink the very story it serves. The most evident appeal of Ripley’s Groundhog Day-meets-Speed scenario is the ticking-clock factor and the emotional toll that it takes on Gyllenhaal’s character. His war vet is at first scared, then skeptical, sarcastic, saddened, and sincere in the face of a seemingly vain and yet potentially disaster-averting investigation, and as a director, Jones seems to relish the challenge of finding fresh excitement with each repeated sequence, capitalizing on the constant sense of paranoia and nigh perverse futility of it all.
Any conventional sense of action-thriller pacing goes out the window as the stakes constantly mutate to span the lives of a few hundred innocent civilians, then a few million, before getting down to the individual sacrifice at hand. At different points in the film, the notion of what would constitute a happy ending either within or without the realm of the “source code” changes but still carries an unavoidable moral cost, and the sense of utilitarian function that weighs heavy on our hero echoes the quandary faced by Sam Rockwell’s Moon protagonist in that film.
Gyllenhaal is nearly as good here as Rockwell was there, delivering the right mixture of resolve and vulnerability to make the drama viable. Monaghan plays well enough off him to make their expedited romance viable. And together, Jones and Ripley make sure that the sci-fi is just viable enough to hold the whole crackerjack package together when it threatens to come apart. Capt. Stevens may not get it right every time he tries, but Jones himself is 2-for-2 in my book.
The Blu-ray supplements are limited to two fairly informative features: a commentary track by Jones, Gyllenhaal, and Ripley, and the “Access: Source Code” mode. The commentary elaborates on the project’s evolution (originally, the attack took place in New York, with Stevens returning for 17 minutes at a time), technical specifics (train scenes were shot on film while “outside” scenes were shot on the RED camera), the isolated nature of the performances and the trio’s theories on the film’s ultimate logic. Gyllenhaal’s dry sense of humor in particular tends to bolster the discussion past its occasional lulls.
The “Access” mode is akin to the “Maximum Movie Mode” available on select Warner Brothers Blu-rays, although the insights offered herein have a tendency to overlap rather than playing in a strictly linear manner. Gushy cast and crew interviews, expert insights, and animated asides unfurl alongside pop-up trivia about other time-travel stories (yes, even Kate & Leopold) and laughably specific minutia about the historical implementation of smoking bans and driver's licenses. Taken individually, any of the Mode’s five threads (each of which can be individually activated or deactivated) would come across as meager supplemental material, so perhaps this concurrent approach is for the best, if strictly for multitaskers.