“Soda can. Coffee spill.” Check, check, check. “Source Code” is a slick goof on film history’s wealth of time-travel premises, and Duncan Jones’ second feature after the capable low-budget “Moon” is another neat confection of cleverness rising above essential implausibility. Soldier Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal, turning up the warmth) wakes up on a commuter train slicing toward downtown Chicago, but in the body of another man. He doesn’t even know that he’s on a mission, but he soon finds out: he’s been sent to find out as many details as he can in the eight minutes before a bomb detonates so that he might prevent a much larger catastrophe set to happen in the Loop within hours. Tick tick, tick. There’s knotty plotting and mouthfuls of explainer-ing—”Quantum physics and parabolic calculus” are factors in the “time reassignment,” how Colter can travel within this eight-minute window yet not change the outcome—but filmmaking velocity is what sets the heart racing. “Source Code”‘s a fine ride. Amid the “Twilight Zone”-style perplex in Ben Ripley’s script, Jones shows a Hitchcock-like appreciation for invoking landmarks (hello, Bean), as well as a story set largely on a passenger train, which slices through splendid ordinariness of the suburbs again and again. There’s a lot of learned behavior in those eight minutes, a life, a life, a life. Colter’s a noticer out of time and space, as much like a production designer or cinematographer as a trained soldier—or a film director. Typical detail: “Are we going to make up these ten minutes?” an impatient passenger asks of the eight minutes he has left to live. The variations on claustrophobia work with both suspense and wit in a tight running time. Compare the duration to a similar story from eighteen years ago: Harold Ramis has said Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day” probably went through thirty or forty years of the same, the same, the same. The ending is sweet and romantic and dreamy and completely bonkeroo: time-travel stories always have some kind of tear in the tesseract, so why not an uplifting one? With a twinkling Michelle Monaghan as the fellow passenger who doesn’t understand why this colleague she likes is behaving so strangely; Vera Farmiga as the intent, intelligent supervisor of the experiment and Jeffrey Wright as the inventor who coats his every utterance in a brainy broth both sleek and sinister. The brisk cinematography is by Don Burgess (“Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away,” “Spider-Man”); the fleet editing by Paul Hirsch (“Star Wars,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Blow Out,” “Carrie”). 93m. (Ray Pride)
“Source Code” opens Friday.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.