Colton Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up abruptly, sitting on a train on the way to Chicago, across from Christine (Michelle Monaghan), a woman who seems to know him but who Colton has never met before. Colton doesn't understand how he got on the train - he was undergoing a mission in Afghanistan, how could he be on this train? He goes into the bathroom and gets a shock - the face he sees in the mirror is not his own. He notices things around him - someone spills coffee on his shoe, a man gets off but accidentally drops his wallet, various conversations from the passengers around him, and then suddenly and without warning, the train explodes and he is instantly killed in the blast.
Colton Stevens wakes up abruptly, sitting in what looks to be an old space capsule, across from a monitor with Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) onscreen, a woman who seems to know him but who Colton has never met before. She asks him what he saw on the train, if he saw who blew it up. Time is of the essence - whoever blew up the train is going to explode a dirty bomb in downtown Chicago, potentially killing millions. Through the technology of the Source Code, built by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), Colton is able to go into the last eight minutes of the train ride because he is reliving the final moments of a passenger who died in the explosion. Colton's mission is to find out who destroyed the train in those eight minutes, but as Colton keeps experiencing and re-experiencing those moments, he decides that he could possibly change the events he's witnessing. All the while, Colton comes closer to the truth of what the Source Code is, what his real fate could be, and how he could save Christine's life, who he has grown to care about.
Duncan Jones' first film was MOON, and it instantly branded him as Someone To Watch. And while I wouldn't claim that SOURCE CODE, his second film, lives up to the greatness of MOON, it's a solid film regardless - a thoughtful science fiction film during a time when studios aren't routinely making them unless there's a number after the title. It has big ideas, an emotional thread that runs throughout the film, and some quite good acting from Gyllenhaal, who knows how to bring the empathy in his performance. It's to his credit the the film works as well as it does - as the audience surrogate through the film, Gyllenhaal does a great job of putting his emotion in the performance as he goes deeper into what is happening to him. Monaghan does well playing Christine, as she follows Colton through each eight minute iteration, and while the film seems reminiscient of GROUNDHOG DAY as Colton learns more about the people and the events on the train, it never loses focus and manages to keep its own voice without feeling like a ripoff of that classic film. Ben Ripley's script is a little derivative, and some scenes it's unclear what is happening because the science is so wonky. But he gets the people right, and that's the most important thing in a film like this.
Vera Farmiga is instrumental in being Stevens' guide through his mission, but as cracks appear in her facade, we wonder what exactly is happening to Colton. Farmiga is terrific as the conflicted Goodwin. I'd say the only bad performance is, unfortunately, Jeffrey Wright's Rutledge, who is basically a caricature of every military scientist ever put on screen. The film seems to gloss over the potential ideas of alternate universes and realities, and it rushes through the "science", probably because the screenwriter didn't completely understand them. This isn't "hard" sci-fi. It's more interested in the people than the mechanics.
It sounds like a disservice to say that SOURCE CODE is slickly, efficiently directed by Jones, considering how good MOON was. But Jones has made a film that fits perfectly in a studio roster. As MOON was fiercely independent, SOURCE CODE feels very much like a studio film. But Jones has injected those same themes of humanity and identity that we saw in MOON; as Colton struggles to understand what is happening to him, there's correlations to what Sam Rockwell was experiencing in MOON - instead of corporate masters manipulating him, it's the military. Duncan Jones seems to be on the thematic path of finding the core of what makes us us, even in fantastic realms and situations. We should celebrate filmmakers like Jones, or Neill Blomkamp, or Gareth Edwards - directors who struggle to get their visions and ideas on screen. The last thing I want Duncan Jones to do at this point is another remake/reboot/pre-se-requel. Although SOURCE CODE isn't as great as MOON, it's still pretty damn good, and worth your time this weekend.