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Review: Source Code

Stranger on a train
By PETER KEOUGH  |  March 31, 2011
3.0 3.0 Stars

At the risk of spoilers, let me just say that in his second film, Duncan Jones repeats horizontally what he accomplished vertically in his terrific 2009 debut, Moon. Or maybe vice versa. To put it another way: Jones has a thing about the nature and the limitations of identity, which he likes to submit to unnerving, mind-boggling extremes.

Source Code doesn't quite live up to the stark giddiness and existential horror of Moon — maybe because it boasts a bigger budget, more explosions, and a buff Jake Gyllenhaal instead of a furtive Sam Rockwell. And some might think it has one ending — if not more — too many. But at the very least, the film exceeds by several magnitudes the emotional and philosophical intensity of such similar metaphysical amusements as Avatar and Inception.

>> READ: "Interview: Duncan Jones on solving Source Code" by Peter Keough <<

It begins not just in medias res but in mid sentence, as Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot who, to the best of his knowledge, is still serving in an Afghanistan battle zone, finds himself on a commuter train to Chicago listening to Christina (Michelle Monaghan) tell him about her job and her plans and her ex-boyfriend. She calls him "Sean." Stevens expresses panic and bewilderment and insists on his true identity. Christina regards this as a bad joke, if not something worse. But for Stevens, it's not funny, especially when he catches a glimpse of his reflection in a mirror and it's not his face. And he's definitely not amused when a terrorist bomb blows him and everyone else on the train to kingdom come.

He comes to in what looks like a Cubist dumpster where Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), an Army officer, appears on a computer screen, looking official and authoritative and concerned. But she evades his questions, and the Strangelovian Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), who seems to be in charge of whatever is going on, isn't much more helpful. The details of the mission appear to be on a "need to know" basis. All Rutledge will begrudgingly tell Stevens is that he's been installed in the body of a victim of the terrorist bombing by means of quantum physics. ("It's complicated," Rutledge "explains.") This allows him, in effect, to time-travel a few hours into the past and relive the final eight minutes of the guy's life, over and over, until he can figure out who set off the bomb. Because whoever did it plans to detonate a much bigger, dirtier bomb, and there's not much time to stop it.

>> READ: "Interview: Duncan Jones on solving Source Code" by Peter Keough <<

Call it Groundhog Doomsday. The concept is far more Philip K. Dickian than the recent Dick film The Adjustment Bureau; unlike that sentimentalized adaptation, Source Code lays out its logical absurdities and their all-too-plausible implications with a gleeful, cold-blooded calculation. Jones and his cast also try to invest the relationships with emotional depth: a perfunctory romance flickers between Stevens and Christina, a bond of friendship between him and Goodwin. But the film works best as an existential video game. Stevens, the reluctant player, must complete a task in a deadly scenario. He fails and dies, but he's learned something, and when he gets another life and another replay, he has a few more pieces of the puzzle. With each reprise and variation, the suspense builds in a satisfying crescendo, but the real puzzle is that of identity, which remains unsolved, and the source of Source Code's lingering impact.

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