Eight minutes to detonation: A disoriented soldier returns time and again to the past to thwart a terrorist bombing in the intriguing ‘Source Code’

May 21, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 21, 2014

A man wakes up on a train. A woman he’s never seen before tells him that she took his advice. She calls him Sean. The man slips into the bathroom. When he looks in the mirror, a stranger’s face stares back at him. The wallet he carries contains an ID card for Sean Fentress.

Minutes later, the train explodes, and the man wakes up in a capsule. A woman’s voice asks him: Did you identify the bomber? No, answers the even-more-baffled man. Concentrate, the uniformed woman on the capsule screen tells him. Shortly afterward, she projects him back into the strange man’s body. He is once again sitting across from a strange woman who tells him that she took his advice. The man has been assigned a mission by the uniformed woman and her superiors: To relive this gruesome scenario until he can locate the crucial intelligence that authorities hope will enable them to prevent further deadly terrorist attacks on the United States.

This, simply put (or about as simply as I can manage!), is the premise of Source Code, a gripping 2011 thriller with a smattering of science-fiction elements written by Ben Ripley and directed by Duncan Jones. This is Jones’s second feature film, a follow up to 2009’s brilliant Moon, and indeed the two movies have a number of things in common. Both are cerebral stories featuring a protagonist who has been isolated by his superiors in circumstances that he doesn’t fully understand. Also, most of the hero’s contact with other people is mediated through some form of machinery.

But Source Code has some advantages over its predecessor, at least for those who aren’t science-fiction or art-house buffs. The newer picture’s views of the greater Chicago area — sometimes urban, sometimes bucolic, depending on the location in question — will appear to a much wider audience than Moon’s austere outer-space vistas. And while some of Source Code’s scenes might provoke a sense of claustrophobia, the film’s many different faces make for a much easier viewing experience than Moon, which showed fleeting glimpses of just three human visages besides that of leading actor Sam Rockwell.

Jones has three main characters this time around. The lead is Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a U.S. helicopter pilot named whose last memories before waking up on the commuter train in Fentress’s body were of serving in combat in Afghanistan. The woman Stevens is sitting across from on the train is Cristina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), some kind of businesswoman whom Fentress recently encouraged to enroll in law school. An attraction has been growing between the commuting buddies over recent weeks and months, but neither has yet to act on it.

The uniformed women whom Stevens sees between his returns to the doomed train is Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), a dutiful Air Force officer who repeatedly underscores the importance not of stopping the train bombing but of identifying the person or persons responsible for it. As Goodwin and her supervisor, a dour scientist named Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), explain to the disoriented Stevens, they believe the train bombing to be the precursor to an even deadlier attack.

If I understand (and interpolate) Rutledge’s pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo correctly, associates of “Beleaguered Castle” project have scanned one or more brains of the deceased people on the train. The pioneering “source code” technology allows Stevens to be inserted into a short stretch of the past. He appears as Fentress because of the compatibility between their brains and bodies.

There are at least two key limitations to source code. One is that it only captures an eight-minute period of the past, evidently because this is all that dead brains retain. The other is that actions taken within the source code run can’t change the the timeline from which Stevens is repeatedly cast back into the past and to which he returns.

So even after Stevens leaves the train one stop before the bomber strikes, taking Warren with him, Goodwin informs him that Fentress and Warren remain among the dead.

One reason Source Code is so enjoyable is that it isn’t just a one-track movie. (Sorry-not-sorry for the pun.) It’s interesting to see Stevens decipher the deadly terrorist plot and decode the strange setup of Beleaguered Castle. It’s charming to see the relationship between Stevens-as-Fentress and Warren blossom. It’s also rewarding to watch the developments of the relationships among Stevens, Goodwin and Rutledge and between Stevens and his father (Scott Bakula, in a voice-only cameo that slyly nods to his starring role on the TV series Quantum Leap).

The only major disappointment I had with Source Code was Goodwin’s character arc, which is entirely predictable. I would also grouse that, while the exact nature of Beleaguered Castle and the source code is shrouded in some ambiguity, one of the late-picture revelations about the project is a bit too easy to suss out in advance.

Even so, Source Code is a novel and enjoyable picture — a triumph both for Ripley (previously credited with writing two straight-to-video entries in the Species science fiction-horror series) and Jones. I look forward to seeing what both of these artists do next.

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