Director Duncan Jones’ first movie, 2009’s Moon, is the kind of science-fiction film we rarely see these days: intelligent and well-acted, focused more on ideas and character than explosions and special effects. So it was a little worrisome when Jones followed Moon’s success by signing on to direct a big-budget thriller from the writer of two direct-to-video Species sequels. Source Code proves those worries unfounded, though: It’s more mainstream and accessible than Moon, sure, with more explosions and more suspense. But it’s still thoughtful and character-driven, and proof that Jones can successfully balance entertainment with ideas.
Jake Gyllenhaal does a nice job as Capt. Colter Stevens, an American soldier who’s the guinea pig for a cutting-edge technology: After the bombing of a Chicago commuter train, the military is able to essentially insert Stevens’ consciousness into the final eight minutes of the life of one of the passengers, and Stevens is thus instructed to find the bomb and discover the bomber, in order to stop a second bombing about to take place. The concept is a little confusing, but because Stevens starts the movie just as clueless as the audience, things fall into place coherently, and we identify with him as he learns more about his situation.
Like Moon, Source Code parcels out its plot developments without relying on a single all-consuming twist at the end; there are surprises, particularly about the details of what’s happening to Stevens, but they unfold organically and enhance the suspense and character development rather than distract from it. As Stevens returns again and again to the eight minutes leading up to the explosion, Jones stages what is basically the same sequence six or seven times, but it never seems repetitive or stale. Michelle Monaghan, as another doomed passenger, and Vera Farmiga, as Stevens’ military contact, provide emotional and expositional framework, and Gyllenhaal keeps the story grounded. The ending plays into the movie’s mainstream intentions by wrapping things up too neatly and positively (in a way that doesn’t entirely add up), but otherwise Source Code gives every indication that Jones will continue making movie sci-fi that’s both entertaining and enlightening.