'Source Code' Review

Ideas trump effects in this intriguing sci-fi spin on “Groundhog Day," starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

His career is only two movies old, but director Duncan Jones seems to specialize in science fiction that reminds you very much of other movies. Moon (2009) certainly evoked 2001 for many critics, and now he delivers Source Code, a dead ringer for Groundhog Day, only without the laughs. Still if you’re going to redo a classic — after 18 years, that’s not too far-fetched a designation, is it? — Code makes several clever adjustments, the most important being the insertion a ticking clock into a series of events running in a continual loop.

Its four main actors play sharply delineated characters, not with much depth, but, hey, who has time for depth when Chicago is about to blow up? Code could develop into a minor hit for Summit thanks to the fine casting, a sense of claustrophobia and an intriguing race against time.

Jake Gyllenhaal awakens to find himself on a commuter train approaching the Windy City. A pretty and chatty seatmate (Michelle Monaghan) resumes a conversation that was apparently begun several minutes earlier, but the man has two problems: He has no idea who she is and, much worse, who he is. A quick trip to a toilet mirror confirms his worst fears: He is in another man’s body. The last thing the Air Force captain remembers, he was flying a plane in Afghanistan.

The film gradually reveals the hero’s situation: His mind is in the control of a government project dubbed “Source Code,” which allows him to relive the last eight minutes in the life of a man who died on that commuter train, along with all the passengers, when a bomb exploded. His mission is to continue to relive those eight minutes until he can identify the bomber and prevent a much greater attack threatened against the city later that day. Putting him through these minutes over and over again is a slightly cold and cerebral scientist (Jeffrey Wright) and his loyal-to-a-point assistant (Vera Farmiga).

As in Groundhog, the protagonist can change events within the prescribed time frame so that in each go-round he comes away with more clues about the mystery of the bomber. The question hanging over all of this, of course, is whether the hero can prevent the deaths of the passengers as well as capture the bomber. Wright’s scientist insists this is not possible, as Source Code does not represent time travel but rather “time reassignment.” No prevention of disaster is possible; all the captain can do is identify the culprit so he can be captured before reaching Chicago.

The Gyllenhaal character, despite exhaustion over having to be killed time after time, believes otherwise. Farmiga’s skeptical officer isn’t so certain either way, and Monaghan, of course, is clueless about her impending fate.

Ben Ripley’s screenplay gives Jones plenty of tension to work within what amounts to a three-set movie: the train, control station and a weird capsule where Gyllenhaal’s character retreats between episodes aboard the train.

Filmgoers will either suspend disbelief or not — until the finale which strives so hard for a feel-good moment that all logic flies out the window. Still, Code is reminscent of old B sci-fi’ers where ideas trump VFX dazzle. The small nuances — a spilled cup of coffee or a wallet left behind — mean more than a fiery bomb or the unwieldy explanation behind this government experiment. The movie boils down to one character, acting under enormous pressures of space and time, racing to solve a mystery. In this case, that may be good enough.

Opens Friday, April 1 (Summit)
Cast Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga
Director Duncan Jones
Producers Mark Gordon, Philippe Rousselet, Jordan Wynn
Rated PG-13, 93 minutes