Film critics have almost unanimously compared “Source Code” with “Groundhog Day,” an apt—if not especially clever—analogy. Take away Bill Murray and the laughter and substitute Jake Gyllenhaal and lots of tension, and you’re right on track, up to and including the feel good ending that doesn’t particularly follow from the preceding plot action. In their very different ways, both are worth watching, and you can rent “Source Code” on DVD this week.
Gyllenhall plays Army helicopter pilot Capt. Colter Stevens, though his scenes in that character are short and few. Instead, he inhabits the body—if not exactly the “person”—of a history teacher named Sean Fentus. To add to the complexity, both characters are technically dead, though they died half a world apart. Stevens was killed on a mission in Afghanistan, Fentus on a commuter train heading into Chicago.
The explanation for the confusion is that Colter has been placed in Sean’s body minutes—eight, to be precise—before a bomb goes off on the train. He has only that time to find the bomb and then figure out who the bomber is. He is to report this information to Air Force officer Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and through her to her supervisor, a scientist named Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright). See, Rutledge has figured out how to pull off a “time reassignment” that allows him to place the mind of one person in the body of another, but the effect only lasts for eight minutes.
The cool part (and here comes Punxatawney Phil) is that one can repeat the psychic journey, though not without some wear and tear on the machinery and the person being whipsawed through time. So each time Colter/Sean goes back to the train and restarts a conversation with Christina (Michelle Monaghan) the same pretty girl is sitting across from him, one he evidently knows. From there, he has to follow the accumulating clues and some minimal direction from his handlers to find the bomber and, uh, save the city and the world.
Working with Ben Ripley’s believe-it-or-miss-the-fun script, director Duncan Jones guides us through the funhouse cleverly, our initial confusion mirroring Colter’s, our gradual (if not full) enlightenment developing slowly. The special effects folks have to figure out ways to make the same explosion interesting over and over, and the actors have to sell this preposterous idea and make us accept their characters as real people in a real jam. Both succeed admirably, the tension building nicely to an ending with some satisfying (if perhaps too melodramatically crowd-pleasing) twists.
Like many good sci-fi flicks, it just doesn’t do to question the premise too closely or ask for absolute clarity. If you watch this “PG-13” rated movie with a kid, you will have some ‘splainin’ to do, Mom and Dad. But adults and teens who willingly suspend their disbelief can lean forward and enjoy the ride in this taut thrill machine.