Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) jolts into consciousness aboard a speeding train, not knowing where he is, why he’s there or recognising anybody, including his own reflection. An American soldier, Stevens’ last memory is of flying a helicopter in Iraq. His desperate confusion in the opening sequence of Duncan Jones’ Source Code (2011) is one of the film’s chief pleasures .
Stevens soon learns that the technology exists to be implanted into somebody’s memories for the last eight minutes of their life, and a bomb is due to explode on the train. Through repeatedly entering the same passenger’s memories, which form an entirely malleable environment (called the source code), he must determine who activates the bomb. Meanwhile, he falls in love with Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the woman sat opposite him.
Whenever Stevens is explosively thrust out of the source code he wakes in an enclosed, bland environment and converses, through a video screen, with a sympathetic, ominously uncomfortable female officer and a callous male scientist. Apart from providing a good cop/bad cop dynamic, these characters function to gradually reveal the sinister extent of Stevens’ circumstances and make some fluffy attempts at grounding the premise in actual science.
After what always seems like too much humdrum exposition Stevens is propelled back onto the train. Trains are exceptional settings for thrillers. Mechanical snakes hurtling through city and countryside, crammed with victims, witnesses, perpetrators and conspirators, all imprisoned together between destinations. This not only provides a prime environment for deceptions like Walter Neff’s in Double Indemnity (1944), or the kidnappers’ in The Lady Vanishes (1938), but offers unique opportunities for stray threads that, if tugged correctly, unravel the whole ploy. I was eager to play detective in Source Code; collecting clues each time Stevens returns to the train and solving a groovy mystery. Disappointingly, no such clues are really presented, and the bomber’s unveiling is rather abrupt.
Stevens’ trips to the source code, undoubtedly the most exciting scenes, are also the most intriguing. Christina’s opening cue being delivered slightly differently each time hints at the source code diving into a multiverse, but such concepts merely float on the surface. Veering away from complex sci-fi, the perpetual narrative builds obvious parallels to Groundhog Day (1993), and draws on similar themes. Both films embody the inspiring message that every moment, no matter how seemingly banal, can be seized and made wonderful. Yet, while this is warming in Groundhog Day, it’s overcooked in Source Code. Furthermore, the possibilities explored in Groundhog Day are plentiful and joyous, flowing with a breakneck tempo absent in Source Code due to its limited repetitions being segregated by lengthy explanatory scenes.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy watching Jake Gyllenhaal running around a train, falling in love and blowing up, but too much potential seemed untapped. After hitting the ground running with Moon (2009), Jones has faltered somewhat on his second attempt. Let’s hope he regains his pace before running out of chances.