Solid execution and some provocative ideas can’t save “Source Code” from a fatal hubris, as it thinks itself far more clever than it actually is and assumes it’s earned emotions at which it’s only hinted. Sophomore director Duncan Jones is becoming an adept craftsman of such modestly scaled, cerebral speculative fiction, and had this been a SyFy original movie, it would have been most impressive. But as a follow-up to the startlingly inventive “Moon,” “Source Code” just doesn’t quite compute. SXSW opener ought to do solid but unspectacular business, with better odds in ancillary.
Summarizing this film is a dicey proposition, as the primary enjoyment to be had lies in gradually piecing together the rules of engagement. From the start, the audience is just as confused as the film’s protagonist, Army Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), as he awakens from a nap on a commuter train heading toward Chicago, opposite Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who seems to be his girlfriend and addresses him as Sean. After a flurry of confusion, in which he sees another man’s reflection in the mirror, the train suddenly explodes in a massive blast, killing all aboard.
Snapped back into his own body, Colter finds himself in a damp cement-and-concrete cell, communicating with fellow soldier Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) via videoscreen. After even more confusion, the basic premise emerges: Colter is a participant in an experimental Army intelligence project in which he can continually relive the last eight minutes of this commuter’s life, “Groundhog Day”-style, in order to find the bomb on the train and identify the bomber, who has threatened to follow up this attack with a dirty-bomb detonation in downtown Chicago. The head scientist (Jeffrey Wright) begins to explain how this is possible with a lecture ending: “It would take weeks to explain.”
But even the most far-fetched sci-fi premise is worth going along with if it thoughtfully examines its own ramifications, whereas “Source Code” treats this brain-teasing notion as though it’s all a clever riddle, albeit one without a particularly interesting solution. It’s also one that requires quantum leaps in logic, the most jarring being the idea that these scientists can use “parabolic calculus” to seamlessly integrate a foreign consciousness into the “afterglow” of dead brain cells, but can’t locate the origin of an explosion by simply observing the wreckage.
More promising is Colter’s ethical dilemma, as he quickly develops deep affection for his fellow passengers (the actors include comedian Russell Peters, who is at least given a convincing reason to do a bit of standup) and begins plotting ways to save them, even though they’re already dead. This could’ve given rise to a somber parable on the nobility of fighting against fate — and the film hints at some intriguing Zoroastrian concepts here — but it’s ultimately just employed to force an emotional undercurrent into what otherwise feels like an observational exercise. The various third-act twists just add further wrinkles to the plot without really developing the premise, and most viewers will be able to spot the guilty party long before Colter does.
“Source Code” subsists on a sustained note of claustrophobia — both physical and temporal — and Jones handles the gradual widening of the film’s visual scope with great aplomb, moving from tight angles and disorienting cutting to something more stable and comprehensible. There’s a number of great shots (particularly a flourish up through the train’s heating vents), and the production design is lovely.
Gyllenhaal could likely do this sort of bedroom-eyed soldier role in his sleep, but he plays the part with great energy and conviction. Farmiga uses the opportunity to add another warmly maternal bureaucrat role to her scorecard, and Wright makes for a nicely sinister string-puller.