In the lightly sci-fi-themed thriller Source Code, Jake Gyllenhaal awakens as a disoriented passenger on a Chicago commuter train. He doesn't recognize Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the friendly beauty in the seat next to him, and before he can even get his bearings, the train explodes in a ball of fire.
But is Gyllenhaal really a hapless Chicago schoolteacher, or is he Capt. Colter Stephens, a helicopter pilot who repeatedly awakens in a cockpit-like chamber that resembles a flight simulator? From a monitor screen, an enigmatic member of the armed forces (Vera Farmiga) explains that Colter has been detailed to a high-tech mission that can send him to the body of one of the doomed train's passengers, but only to repeat the same eight fateful minutes each time.
Like Colter, movie audiences might experience similar feelings of déjà vu based on the premise of Source Code, a chronologically twisted action film that presents variations on the same basic situations. Plenty of other Philip K. Dick-wannabe technothrillers attempt to play identical kinds of brain teasers with their viewers. But director Duncan Jones, like Colter in Source Code or Bill Murray's character Phil in Groundhog Day, shows enough familiarity with the time-loop patterns that he gains mastery over them. Source Code could easily have been the same-old-same-old failed flashy action flick, but instead generates excitement and warmth.
In the name of saving lives, Colter's handlers send him back to the train to pursue different leads each time, from finding a hidden bomb to trailing a suspicious figure to a station. He learns how to avoid getting splashed by Diet Coke, counsels Christina to dump her jerky boyfriend and gathers clues that point to the identity of a domestic terrorist. Meanwhile, in the "real" timeline, he tries to unravel the secrets of what's happening to him.
In recent films like Prince of Persia, Gyllenhaal has struggled to prove that he has the charisma and versatility to carry a major motion picture. Source Code provides him with an unexpectedly affecting comeback performance. As the constantly off-balance protagonist, Colter must process a perplexing, constantly evolving situation. It's no surprise that Gyllenhaal effectively romances Monaghan and reconciles with Colter's father (a voice cameo that harks back to "Quantum Leap"). He also conveys Colter's paranoia and tension, ratcheting up the film's suspense.
Audiences who saw Jones' breakthrough film Moon may notice a recurring pattern in his work. Source Code frequently shows its isolated protagonist confined to a sterile, inhospitable chamber and seeking truth about his identity. In Moon, Sam Rockwell played an isolated astronaut confined to a sterile, inhospitable lunar base while seeking the truth about his identity. And lest we forget, two years before Jones was born in 1971, his father David Bowie had a pop hit with "Space Oddity," about an isolated major alone in a sterile, inhospitable spacecraft.
Source Code backs off from delivering a truly provocative ending and ultimately feels too derivative of earlier cinematic mind games. Nevertheless it's a surprising, satisfying film that respects its audience's intelligence while still providing plenty of kinetic action scenes. Source Code could even hold up to a second viewing, at a time when most movies at the multiplex are scarcely worth watching once.