SXSW 2011 is underway and contributor George Hickman is filing his reports each day as the festival and its several world premiere movie events and panels continue.
In 2009, director Duncan Jones gave gaggles of geeks flaming nerdboners with his debut feature “Moon,” a film that dragged science fiction kicking and screaming back into the realm of intelligence and reason. He returns with “Source Code,” a thriller much smarter and less generic than its trailer and poster portend. Rest assured, this is not the next “Next.”
When Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) opens his eyes, he has no idea why he’s on a train, how he got there, or where it’s going. He doesn’t know why the beautiful woman sitting across from him (Michelle Monaghan) appears to know him. The wallet in his pocket is not his and the ID belongs to a stranger. Then he catches a glimpse of his reflection and sees that stranger staring back. Oh boy.
A soldier by training, Stevens immediately suspects foul play and veers into panic and what can charitably be called a “mild breakdown.”…And that’s just about when a bomb goes off, killing Stevens and everyone else on board the train.
He then finds himself in what appears to be a vaguely familiar cockpit of a simulator of some sort. It’s cold comfort, but at least this time the beautiful woman talking to him from a monitor, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), knows his real name. He still has no idea where he is or how he got there, but at least he’s back in the lukewarm embrace of military protocol.
Unfortunately, Goodwin only greets him with questions. Where was the bomb? What did it look like? Who planted it? Did they act alone? How and where are they planning to strike next? She needs him to repeat the simulation again until he has the answers, even though it means experiencing the explosion over and over. But if it’s just a simulation, why is it so pressing? Why won’t she tell him where they are, how he got there, and what happened to him in Afghanistan?
She tells him it’s not quite a simulation, and what he’s experiencing represents the last eight minutes of the life of a passenger with physical and physiological similarities to him. A dour scientist (Jeffrey Wright) eventually explains the basic theory behind the exercise. Essentially, the energy the brain uses to function is released at death, and a small portion of it can be retrieved and used as source code to reconstruct those events. Because another, larger attack is suspected, they’re depending on him to “Quantum Leap” back onto the train and “Groundhog Day” those eight minutes until they know enough to prevent “Chicago Terrorist Attack: The Sequel.”
While that may sound convoluted, “Source Code” manages the near-miraculous feat of effectively juggling layers of mystery and suspense in a way that does not sacrifice thrills or brains. It’s appealing in the same way that “Lost” was at its best, and it plays with time, destiny, and identity in a way that recalls “12 Monkeys” and “Dark City.”
It’s also anchored by a charming lead performance that reminds you why Gyllenhaal is a star, and marks a welcome return to the type of non-linear science fiction that helped him win nerd love in the first place with “Donnie Darko.” The female leads also shine. Monaghan makes you fall in love with her eight minutes at a time, and Farmiga perfectly embodies the struggle between being a soldier and being human.
Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley make the most of their limited budget with a tight plot, masterfully paced, with a dash of humor that entertains without ever derailing the proceedings. Without crossing the border of Spoiler Country, it’s a relief that the film wraps up in a way that answers all the important questions but still inspires contemplation and debate.
While it is definitely a film that encourages and rewards multiple viewings, it doesn’t require them. Science fiction does not have to be a choice between either heady concepts or alluring spectacle; there can be a balance. “Source Code” proves it.