Jake Gyllenhaal is forced to live a particular eight minutes over and over until he solves a crime in Source Code, a movie sorta like Groundhog Day but with terrorism.
Gyllenhaal’s character awakens on a train unsure of how he got there, where he is, who the woman sitting across from him calling him “Sean” is and, for that matter, who this “Sean” is. He believes himself to be Army Capt. Colter Stevens who was just piloting a helicopter in Afghanistan. Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the woman sitting with him on a train, apparently headed in to Chicago, believes him to be Sean, a man she has been friends with and is possibly on the verge of a relationship with. A lot of “what? what?” comes to an end when the train blows up.
Colter wakes up in a dark capsule and finds another solider, Capt. Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), talking to him on a monitor. Eventually, he pieces together the story that he is being sent into the body of this Sean, to the last eight minutes of his life. Colter will be able to live those eight minutes again and again — for some undetermined amount of time — bringing back information but not changing any outcomes. The idea, Goodwin tells him, is that he finds the bomb and the person who caused the explosion. The government believes that the attack on the train is the first of a series of attacks and that future ones will involve dirty bombs. If they can find information about the bomber from the first attack, they won’t be able to change the events on the train but they may be able to stop future attacks. Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the man who runs the project — the source code — tells Colter that the eight minutes he’s living aren’t real. They aren’t time travel. He is projecting himself into the after-image of that period of time.
What Rutledge and Goodwin don’t tell Colter is where he is, why his capsule seems to be breaking down and how, exactly, he got from Afghanistan to the capsule. Back in the eight minutes, Colter’s attempts to find the bomber are initially stymied by the fact that this “Sean” isn’t a government agent and isn’t armed. And, while these eight-minute trips are supposed to be all about the search for the bomber, Colter is also trying to get more information on his story.
Suspend your disbelief and hold your “eight minutes of what exactly” questions — for at least its first half, Source Code is able to chug along despite the inherent wonkiness of its story. The first jump, the scenes with Goodwin and Rutledge, the subsequent jumps where Colter begins his detective work — these mostly, sort-of work enough. You can go with it, you can enjoy the ride. Gyllenhaal’s Prince of Persia stab at being the action hero might not have been stellar, but he makes for a good thinking-man’s action hero, roughly the space in the universe previously occupied by Matt Damon. He’s not brawny, though he can punch and kick with the best of them, but he’s agile and intense. Even the relationship with Christina works in these early scenes, as his Colter plays either the doesn’t-know-her or pretending-to-know-her role.
It’s as the characters flesh out, emotionally, that the movie starts to fall apart for me. Specifically, when Colter starts to care for Christina and want to change what happens to her, the movie forces us back to looking at its premise, which it both never quite explains well enough for us to buy in to how it plays out or explains too well for its final half hour to make sense. The movie also seems to want to force us to care about Christina and Colter as a couple, and that just gets in the way of all the other things it is trying to do with its story. The more we learn about the characters as people, the less we get about the mad science that drives Colter’s trips back in time or about the crime he’s trying to prevent.
Source Code is just smart enough to make you want it to be smarter.
Rated PG-13 for some violence including disturbing images and for language. Directed by Duncan Jones and written by Ben Ripley, Source Code is an hour and 34 minutes long and distributed by Summit Entertainment.