The time-space continuum offers an eon’s worth of problems for filmmakers. How do you get from Point A to Point B without losing grasp of your whole movie? How do you explore all the moral and ethical quandaries involved in messing with time like this? And, most importantly, how do you sell an audience on this time-travel nonsense?
Director Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son and a College of Wooster grad) shakes loose a bunch of problems, theories, and questions in his brainy but vibrant second movie Source Code. Like his brainy but distant debut Moon, Source Code poses a bunch of smart questions about destiny and responsibility. Unlike the somewhat staid Moon, Source Code pops from the screen.
When we first meet Army helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal, no stranger to time-travel movies, having starred in one of the very best, Donnie Darko), he’s on a Chicago-bound commuter train, disoriented and confused by Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the woman sitting next to him who keeps calling him Sean. He even sees a different face when he looks in the bathroom mirror. Moments later an explosion tears through the train, killing everyone on board.
Suddenly Colter is alone in a capsule, being quizzed via monitor by Carol Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who tells him, Find the bomb and you will find the bomber. Suddenly, he’s back on the train, replaying the scene we just saw with slight variations — like a more ominous version of Groundhog Day. Colter finds the bomb, but he doesn’t know what to do next. Should he disarm it? How does he disarm it? Before he figures it out, the bomb rips open the train again, and Colter is back in the capsule, angry, confused, and loaded with questions.
Turns out the bomb is the first in a series that will go off if Colter doesn’t track down the source. So he’s sent back again and again, to relive the same scene, and talk to passengers one by one until he finds the terrorist. He’s not supposed to break from his mission, which turns out to be a problem when he falls for Christina. Plus, he’s told there are limits to how many times he can do this before it will permanently affect him.
Jones builds suspense as he replays Colter’s predicament time and time again, turning Source Code into a pretty good action thriller. It’s also a stylish and claustrophobic film. But good luck trying to wrap your brain around the concept driving it. (There’s way more going on here, and it’s even more of a mindfuck.)
The movie plays around with going-back-and-altering-time conventions seen in everything from The Time Machine to Back to the Future. But this isn’t time travel, says the guy who invented the program (Jeffrey Wright); it’s “time reassignment.” Basically, Colter can enter someone else’s brainwaves for eight minutes at a time to change things … or something like that. Whatever. As the sympathetic Carol instructs Colter at one point, Don’t think. It’s good advice.