“What would you do if you knew you only had seconds to live?”
The last thing Captain Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) remembers is flying his helicopter while on assignment in Afghanistan. Suddenly he wakes up on a commuter train heading toward downtown Chicago. Across from him is Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he doesn’t remember but who obviously knows him. Stevens is further disoriented when he sees his reflection, first in the train’s window and then in a mirror in the restroom. It’s not his face looking back at him. As Christina reassures him that everything will be all right, the train is engulfed in an explosion.
So begins Source Code, a neat and compact science-fiction thriller that’s just been released on DVD. After the explosion, Stevens wakes up in a capsule. His only outside contact is a video link to his controller, Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). He learns that he is part of a project called Beleaguered Castle that can capture the last eight minutes of memory from a subject – in this case a teacher who was one of the bombing victims. “It isn’t time travel,” explains Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the creator of the project, “it’s time reassignment.” Stevens is sent back to the train to relive those eight minutes. He finds he’s not bound by memory; he can interrelate with the others on the train while he retains what he’s learned during his previous trips back. He has to discover the bomber’s identity because the train explosion was only a calling card. An even larger attack will take place in next few hours. But each time he goes back, he knows he’ll die at the end of the 8 minutes.
Time travel has been a staple of science fiction ever since H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1895. In the past 50 years, ever since George Pal’s production of Wells’ story, it’s been used regularly in movies and television shows. Source Code fits in with television shows such as Quantum Leap and Early Edition, and movies like as Terminator 2 and, on the light side, Groundhog Day. The best science fiction doesn’t deal with the future alone. It uses that future as a lens to look at our own humanity. Time travel is an especially potent device, since it allows us to look at what has happened and consider changing it. That is a spiritual question that’s at the base of all the major religions.
Source Code handles this question beautifully, and on multiple levels. You have the base mystery of who planted the bomb. Stevens also wonders how he came to be selected for this mission. On top of this, he finds he’s falling in love with Christina as he relives those 8 minutes again and again. Although he knows she is doomed, he must try to save her as well as the others on the train. The original screenplay by Ben Ripley is like a Matryoshka doll, where you open one level and another level is revealed, and then another. As you go deeper, you discover Stevens’ heart and soul.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s first appearance in a movie was as Billy Crystal’s son in City Slickers. He hasn’t followed the usual Hollywood Star route, if you discount Prince of Persia and The Day After Tomorrow (which I confess is a guilty pleasure of mine). Roles in Donnie Darko, October Sky, and of course Brokeback Mountain, have marked him as both a leading man as well as an actor willing to take risks. In Source Code, you are drawn into his quest and feel what he’s experiencing, retaining sympathy for him even as he’s stumbling in his investigation. Michelle Monaghan has carved out a niche as an intelligent, feisty heroine in such movies as Gone Baby Gone and Eagle Eye. Even in 8 short minutes, you can understand why Stevens would fall in love with her. In a way, Vera Farmiga has the most difficult role, withholding what she knows of Stevens’ selection as she reacts to him through the computer link. Yet that reaction is pivotal to the emotional climax of the movie.
The movie is the second feature directed by Duncan Jones, his first being the well-received Moon with Sam Rockwell. Jones peels away the levels of the story with a surgeon’s skill yet keeps the movie racing along – well, like a train. At 94 minutes, there isn’t a wasted frame in the movie. It’s often mentioned that Jones is the son of David Bowie. However, if he keeps directing movies like this, Bowie may soon be known more for being his father.
When Stevens asks Christina the question at the start of this piece, her response is, “I would make every second count.” That’s good advice for all of us.