The second film from director Duncan Jones is a satisfying sci-fi thriller which manages to pack invention and emotion into a neat 95 minutes.
Laying out the plot of Source Code is tricky as much of the pleasure of the film lies in how it gradually reveals its hand.
After a short time, the train explodes and he realises he is part of a futuristic military program which allows him to continually experience the last 8 minutes of a commuter’s life in order to discover who planted the bomb.
Supervised via video link by a military scientist (Jeffrey Wright) and a fellow soldier (Vera Farmiga), Colter finds out more about the suspected bomber on each ‘pass’ and why he was selected for this mission.
To the film’s credit, it manages to add a few more layers and twists without ever getting lost in complications, despite the nagging feeling that there are gaping logic holes with regard to the ‘science’ in the film.
What exactly is the source code? How can people communicate in the way they do in the film?
But we are basically in an extended, upscale episode of The Twilight Zone where none of that really matters when you are actually watching the film (although a post-screening discussion might be a different matter).
It moves quickly and efficiently as Gyllenhaal’s character gradually uncovers the truth and Ben Ripley’s script combines elements from films such as Groundhog Day (1993) and Déjà Vu (2006) as it explores the tensions and mysteries of a fantastical situation in a particular location.
This is familiar territory for Duncan Jones, as his debut feature Moon (2009) explored similar areas (although in a different context) and he handles the bigger budget and action sequences with an impressive ease.
Generally, the exterior locations of the train are blended well with the interior set of the train, although there are moments when the CGI and green screen aren’t fully convincing (a dramatic jump from a train is jarring).
But DOP Don Burgess and Jones manage to explore the location of the train well, getting across the claustrophobia and drama packed inside the carriages before visually opening out the film as it gets nearer the climax.
The performances suit the material well: Gyllenhaal is a solid lead, playing a more likeable version of his soldier in Jarhead (2005); Monaghan is a charming foil, whilst Farmiga and Wright bring a convincing level of military authority to their roles.
Chris Bacon’s score also adds a nice touch of urgency, effectively channelling Bernard Herrmann, and there is more than a dash of Hitchcock to the film as it centres around a MacGuffin (in this case a bomb) and the plot is a lean affair in which one sequence propels into another.
Although a mid-budget movie, reportedly made for around $35m, it could do better than expected as various elements combine in satisfying ways.
The action and suspense gives it across the board appeal; the central character is an honourable soldier who may strike a chord with flyover states; the twisty narrative will be a talking point among movie fans; and the surprising emotional chemistry could snare the date movie crowd.
Even if it doesn’t make a huge impact theatrically there seems an assured shelf life for Source Code as a sci-fi thriller with brains and ideas, even if some of them don’t seem to fully add up when the film is over.