Source Code, the new movie from Moon director Duncan Jones, has been teased in ads as an action flick. But it's actually a psychological thriller about how soldiers and scientists fight wars - against the enemy, and each other.
Like Moon, Source Code is a character study of one man, Colter (Jake Gyllenhaal), who finds himself at the mercy of distant scientists and superior officers telling him to do things that make no sense. A captain who has been fighting in Afghanistan, he awakens in the body of another man on a train. Before he can figure out what's going on, the train explodes and he finds himself awakening again, in what seems to be some kind of damaged cockpit - oil is leaking from the walls, and he's belted into a chair wearing his flight uniform. A computer screen on the wall fizzes to life, and he sees the face of Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), whom he assumes is his superior officer on a mission he can't remember. She tells him he's been working with her for months, and that he has to "go back into the source code." Which is when things get really weird, because she somehow transports him right back to the train, and the other man's body, right before everything explodes.
It's an interesting setup, especially because we get to watch two parallel mysteries unfold. First, what is Colter doing on these missions, and how are they happening? And second, can he complete the mission that Goodwin keeps asking him to do, which is to find the person who set off the bomb that destroys the train?
As the movie unfolds, and Colter's situation gets weirder and weirder, it's clear that the far more fascinating mystery is the first one. How is he being hurled back in time over and over again? Is he still in Afghanistan? Who exactly is running this "mission" in the first place?
The mission itself, a rather routine "hunt for the terrorist" deal, becomes a kind of surreal backdrop for Colter's anguished attempts to unspool meaning from a mission that's getting uglier by the minute. Each time Goodwin (and her simpering scientist colleague) send him back to the train, he only has 8 minutes before he'll be bathed in fire and die again. They tell him that if he can only find the guy who planted the bomb, they can stop another bomb from going off in downtown Chicago. So there's a benevolent goal buried in here somehwere, but it's hard for Colter to buy into it completely when it seems like he's being given only about a quarter of the true story.
His trips into "the source code," the snippet of time he has access to in the past, are each quite different. It seems that a few things change every time, though the one constant is Colter's seat-mate Christina, a woman he becomes (of course) emotionally attached to despite the surreal scenario. And each time, he learns a bit more about what's happening to him from Goodwin and the scientist behind the source code. Finally he realizes that he's being used in a terrible way by the scientist, even if it's for a good cause.
Source Code begins to go off the rails, if you'll pardon the bad pun, right around the time that Colter's mission is nearly complete and we begin to realize what the "source code" really is. Unfortunately, the more you know about this technology that's controlling Colter's world, the more grumpy you're going to feel - at least, if you like consistency in your science fiction. The problem here isn't the science is implausible, because you expect that in a movie with futuristic technology. It's that the science doesn't follow any of the rules laid out in the mad scientist's infodumps. Again, even this wouldn't be a big problem - maybe the idea is that the technology works in an unexpected way. But that's not it either. It really does seem like the writer started out with one idea for what the "source code" is, changed his mind about six times, and then finally gave up and slapped an implausible happy ending on a story that has until that moment been all about death and torturous mind control.
If you can forgive this basic problem with the movie's plot, there is still a lot to like about Source Code. Gyllenhaal turns in a good performance as the honorable soldier who wants to do what's right, but can't face more horror and death. And Farminga, who mostly appears as a face on a computer monitor, manages to convey an incredible amount of emotional intensity. We absolutely believe in these characters, even if we're a little dubious about some of the plot devices.
Is Source Code a masterpiece? Not really. But it's still a fun diversion, and packs an emotional punch. As a story about a man whose mind has been ravaged by war, it works. As science fiction, it's a little shaky. But it's definitely worth seeing - Duncan Jones has delivered an entertaining, fast-paced thriller with characters you actually care about. And that's an accomplishment in itself.