An experimental government program sends soldier Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) back in time, where he wakes up in the body of a commuter who witnesses a train bombing. Presented with just 8 minutes to figure out who is responsible, his mission is further complicated by his feelings for a fellow passenger (Monaghan).
Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhall) has just eight minutes to save the world. Well, not so much the world as Chicago. And not so much eight minutes as eternity. After a terrorist bombs a commuter train outside Chicago, with more promised to come, Army pilot Stevens is sent back in time using the "Source Code" to live the last eight minutes over and over before the explosion to find some clue, any clue, before it's too late for anyone else.
If you were being glib you could describe it as "Groundhog Day" redone as a thriller, but that would really be selling director Duncan Jones ("Moon") sophomore effort short. It does cover a lot of the same existentialist themes about determinism and the nature of life. But it packs them into a tight thriller package that hinges not on plot twists (although there are several) as much as the handful character relationships which lie at its heart. Specifically the relationship between Stevens and the two women in his life, fellow train passenger Christina (Michelle Monaghan) and his handler Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). And all in roughly an hour and a half to boot.
Despite its professional and distant nature, in fact, his relationship to Goodwin may be the most important, and certainly the one that takes the most amount of screen time. Waking up in a pod … somewhere … Goodwin is Colter's lifeline to the real world, helping him get over the disorientation of his trips back and forth and reminding him what he is doing and most importantly, why.
Which is the point where "Source Code" really shines. The nature of the plot and the fact that, no matter what he wants, the events on the train are unalterable, "Source Code" quickly and understandably puts aside what exactly is going to happen to answer a more central question to all of us and which thrillers really like to avoid – why is it important to us? What should we really be focusing on in life?
For Stevens that answer may lie with his charming co-passenger Christina, and Monaghan and Gyllenhaal have excellent chemistry together, making the most out of conversations which by their nature must be repetitive. But as his attempts to find out what is really happening become more and more desperate Colter and the film itself realize they must widen their gaze and take in the world around them and how they are connected to it.
Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley ("Species III") are working at a high level, making the most of their high concept and low budget. If you're paying really close attention you should be able to figure out the major plot twists ahead of time, which actually proves the real strength of the film because even if you know what's coming it's still highly enjoyable. Jones knows when to put on the brakes and when to slam the film into full thriller speed, in a difficult piece of start and stop pacing which requires an extremely steady hand.
Every so often the low budget (for this kind of film) shows through, particularly in the train explosion effects which vary in quality. But as quibbles go that's not too much of one and when it gets going it chugs right along thanks to some sharp editing from Paul Hirsch.
It may end up being a little too philosophical for hardcore action junkies; it's ultimately not an action movie though it does a good job of masquerading as one when it needs to. I have a feeling whenever some screenwriter gets a clever idea in their head for a hook they can use to write intelligently about character relationships and the human condition, this is how they imagine it turning out. The ups and downs of the Hollywood process and its natural conservatism often keep that from happening, to the point where we sometimes groan at the mention of the next high concept thriller.
But we shouldn't because it can be done well. "Source Code" is high concept filmmaking done the way it's supposed to be.