“Source Code” Shows Movies Can Be Fun and Smart

Director Duncan Jones earned a lot of goodwill among sci-fi fans and cinephiles for the quiet and intense Sam Rockwell vehicle, Moon, two years ago. Dark thoughtfulness isn’t his modus operandi in his new film, Source Code, but he trades that in for something nearly as valuable: frenetic, high-concept fun.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Colter Stevens, an American soldier who suddenly wakes up in the body of a man named Sean Fentress on a Chicago commuter train that soon explodes. He wakes up again (this time as himself) in a cold and dark pod in which Vera Farmiga’s Goodwin pesters him with questions about some mission he is unaware of. Soon everything is explained, and it turns out that Stevens is going back into the last eight minutes of Sean Fentress’s life to find out who bombed that train so that he can prevent subsequent attacks in downtown Chicago.

This premise seemed awfully convoluted in the trailer, when it was explained in thirty seconds. Yet Source Code takes its time with it, dropping us right into the action from the first minute but lingering appropriately on Stevens’s initial disorientation with his situation. The actual explanation for the phenomenon—“quantum mechanics,” of course—is a little silly, as these things tend to be, but to its credit, Source Code stays true to the rules of its narrative universe, and makes up for the somewhat cringe-worthy exposition of its premise with its total energetic commitment to it. The film is smart and fast-paced, but still makes room for the heady ethical dilemmas Jones explored with such finesse in Moon. Source Code works because it grounds the wild metaphysical shenanigans in Stevens’s very real and very human agony—ably portrayed, lest we forget, by Gyllenhaal.

The film only stumbles in its third act, less than thrilling due to its strong commitment to the “true love” aspect of the story, which is always the least interesting part of any sci-fi action movie. It wraps things up neatly and proposes an interesting final twist to its conceit, but the film doesn’t really climax so much as deflate.

Nevertheless, Source Code is eminently entertaining, and serves as a nice entry into the Hollywood film world for the talented Duncan Jones. It's good to have directors like him and Christopher Nolan around, as they remind us that crackerjack blockbuster films don’t have to be unconscionably stupid. Fun movies can be smart, and this one is a great example.

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