This is the question at heart of “Source Code,” a hypnotically riveting, hauntingly thought-provoking, and highly entertaining science-fiction thriller starring Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan. Here we have one of the most exciting films of the young movie season, and it is a film that you will think about long after you have left the theater.
As the picture opens, we are aboard a commuter train bound for Chicago, and we join a young man sitting across from an extremely attractive woman. Her name is Christina Warren (Monaghan), and she is talking to the man as if the two of them are old friends. The only problem is that the man doesn’t seem to know who she is, and when she calls him Sean, he tells her that his name is Capt. Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) and that he is a helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army. So severe is the man’s disorientation that Christina has to show him where his train ticket is located in his shirt pocket.
In order to compose himself, the poor guy goes to the restroom, and when he looks into the mirror, he is stunned to find the image of a man he doesn’t recognize staring back at him. And a few moments later the train explodes killing everyone on board. That is everyone on the train dies except for Colter, who suddenly finds himself strapped inside a space capsule.
Now he is even more confused than he was on the train, but suddenly a TV screen in the capsule comes to life, and a woman named Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) begins questioning him. As their odd conversation continues, Colter learns that train explosion was an act of terrorism and that he was supposed to locate the bomb and identify the terrorist who planted it. When the poor fellow asks how he is supposed to do that, Goodwin says that they are sending him back in and that he has eight minutes to complete his assignment. And before he can say “follow the yellow brick road,” he’s on the train again in the same time frame. It’s the ultimate déjà vu experience, and it is one that he will repeat more times than he cares to.
Each time Colter returns to the train for another eight-minute segment, we learn a little bit more about what is going on until all of the pieces of the puzzle finally fall into place. Or do they? Part of “Source Code’s” beauty is that it makes you think, and even after the closing credits have rolled by, you may still find yourself wondering whether or not you have everything figured out. And it also will make you realize how lucky you are to be alive. In the film’s production notes, producer Mark Gordon (“Saving Private Ryan”) explained how he hoped people would react to the movie.
“What’s special about the film is that it has an enormous amount of action and it’s a wonderful thriller. It’s all things you hope for in a movie in terms of pure entertainment. But at the end of the film when the curtain comes down, so to speak, I’d like for people to walk out of the theater having enjoyed the thrills, but also thinking about how precious life is. Whether it’s eight minutes or a lifetime, it is something that you should savor. We all have bad days, but life is magnificent and beautiful. It may sound a little hokey, but I think that when you leave the film, you have a greater sense of appreciation because Jake’s character gets a second chance at life.”
Now if you think for one minute that watching the same scene eight-minute scene play out again and again is in the least bit tedious, you couldn’t be more mistaken. Instead it is hypnotically fascinating because each time Colter learns a little bit more about his assignment.
Gyllenhaal is perfectly cast in the part of Colter because he consistently convincing in conveying his character’s confusion and frustration. Gyllenhaal actually plays two parts in the film because the Colter locked in the space capsule and communicating with Goodwin is different from the Colter we encounter on the train. And Gyllenhaal carries out both parts to perfection.
He also has an excellent chemistry with Monahgan, who complements her co-star’s performance with a stellar one of her own. Christina is a lovely, likable, and caring woman who obviously has more than a passing interest in Colter, but she too must convey her character’s concern and confusion, and she does so flawlessly.
In the production notes, both stars expressed their enthusiasm for the film’s concept and for being a part of the project.
“There was a lot of brainwork in the movie,” Gyllenhaal said. “But once we got to the set, I had to be able let go of the cerebral part so we could tell the story of a guy lost in time. Emotions are hitting him from all sides, which is great fun for an actor.”
“I was intrigued with the challenge of playing the same day over and over again,” Monaghan said. “It was all about finding the nuances. A challenge like that forces you to be as creative as you can because you’re shooting essentially the same dialogue, but trying to bring something fresh to it.”
The other two noteworthy performances in the film belong to Farmiga as the straitlaced Army scientist Goodwin and Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Rutledge, the heartless head of the source code operation.
Now at this point you probably are wondering exactly what the source code is or what it means. Well, I’m not going to tell you because it would spoil the film for you, but I will say that the concept behind the film is an intriguing one even if it is out of the realm of reasonable possibility.
In addition the fine acting, this movie offers plenty of action, suspense, and mystery along with just the right amount of romance. The movie also successfully combines the elements of an action thriller with a science-fiction adventure, and it grabbed me from the very beginning and didn’t let go until the final frame. “Source Code” (It gets an impressive nine.) definitely is a trip worth taking, and it will make you think twice before you ever board a train again.