Ever since America went online, Hollywood has been struggling to make technology dramatic. (Remember The Net, which hinged on the contents of a floppy disk? Sandra Bullock runs to her computer! Now she’s furiously typing! Now she’s … waiting for files to download?) Cell phones alone have all but ruined the suspense genre; most modern movies bend over backward finding ways to steer their heroes and heroines clear of 3G networks and Wi-Fi hotspots so that the high-wire plots can unfold uninterrupted by the amenities of modern life. So it’s refreshing that Source Code, a brain-twisting action thriller from British director Duncan Jones (who made his feature debut with 2009’s equally trippy Moon) not only revolves entirely around technology but also manages to make it genuinely gripping.
Following a very North by Northwest opening credit sequence, Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot stationed in Afghanistan, wakes up on a train chugging along through the suburbs outside Chicago. He has no memory of how he got there, but he’s traveling with a woman, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who seems to know him but insists on calling him “Sean.” He runs to the bathroom to check his reflection, and a stranger stares back. Disoriented and panicked, he looks for a way off the train. But then it explodes.
Stevens jolts awake again in a grenade-shaped capsule, locked into his seat. His only human connection is through a screen that broadcasts a live feed from a nondescript government office, in which an agent named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) monitors his every move and vital sign. Goodwin explains to Stevens that he’s being used to gather important intel, and that his job is to find the bomber on the train in the eight minutes before the explosion. He’s sent back to no avail, but as he becomes increasingly agitated Goodwin placates him by feeding him more information. The terrorist attack took place earlier that morning, but Stevens is the guinea pig in a highly classified experiment involving the “source code,” a time-traveling technological network that allows a person to inhabit a carbon copy of past reality that has been saved in the brainwaves of another human being—in this case, Sean Fentress, a passenger on the train. Stevens, as Sean, must ID the bomber in order to prevent another, larger-scale attack within a matter of hours.
As Stevens revisits the train again and again, searching for clues, he becomes smitten with Christina, even abandoning his mission at one point in an attempt to save her life (which, Goodwin assures him, is futile as she’s already dead). And as Goodwin and her boss (Jeffrey Wright) become impatient, Stevens begins to question why he’s there, and under what circumstances. The answers he finds are chilling.
Ultimately, Source Code makes good on its Hitchcockian opening sequence—it may pale in comparison to the master, but it’s a fun, puzzle-filled ride, with excellent pacing and a mounting uneasiness that recalls the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. The Groundhog Day-meets-Speed structure is both playful and suspenseful, and all of the actors are perfectly cast.
Of course, it’s not a perfect movie, and when it errs, it pours. Monaghan’s Christina is a flimsy (albeit friendly) sketch of a person, and it’s hard to believe that Stevens would fall for her so quickly—if at all. The bomber’s identity ends up being a major letdown (“Life is hell,” he tells Stevens cheerfully when asked for his motive), and the film ends in a burst of inexplicable, illogical gooeyness that feels like a rom-com ending tacked on haphazardly to what seemed up to that point to be a pretty bleak thriller. (Just wait ’til you see what Gyllenhaal really looks like outside the source code).
Still, the payoffs outweigh the questionable plausibility. And what’s the harm in logging off the network for a few hours to indulge in some good, old-fashioned science fiction?