That’s the set up for Source Code, the newest film from Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) who also helmed the popular Moon a couple years ago. There’s a lot of ways to read into a film like Source Code. You could read it in terms of God or religion or science or evolution or quantum physics or even psychology. I’d like to read it as entertainment. That is, after all, what it is. That it has more depth and intelligence than most blockbusters these days is a little added bonus and is, in truth, what makes it all the more entertaining.
Stevens wakes up in what looks like the cockpit of a crashed fighter jet. He doesn’t immediately know where he is but is quickly greeted over a monitor by Goodwin (Vera Farmiga, the lovely actress from Up in the Air) who jogs his memory and isn’t quite willing to explain to him what is going on. As a solider, he’s wondering where his men are, if he can speak to his father, and why he is stuck here instead of off in battle. There isn’t much time and so he’s jolted back onto the train to live it all over again.
Stevens is eventually briefed by Dr. Rutledge (invaluable character actor Jeffry Wright) that he is involved in an experiment called Source Code, which is based on a quantum theory that there is roughly 8 minutes that exist in the mind after death or something like that. Therefore, because Stevens is so close a match to this Sean fellow, they can blast him back 8 minutes before the man’s death in order to see just what happened. It’s not time travel, as Colter can’t change anything, but he can figure out who the bomber is and let them know so he can be stopped before another, even bigger attack is staged.
That’s as far as I’ll go with plot. You can discover the rest of the nuances and twists on your own. Is Source Code possible? Maybe, especially if you're one of those few who were spoken to by that narrative documentary What the Bleep do we Know? in which quantum mechanics are attempted to be broken down in such a way that the everyday mind could understand. But now that doesn’t much matter. What’s important is that it makes for intriguing suspense.
The preposterousness (and all science fiction must rightfully come with some degree of preposterousness) of Source Code works because the film rightly defines its science. It thus lays down a ground work for something that is given rules and definition and works in creating some sort of believable story. Some sci-fi tends to allow the science to run off with itself and just makes it up as it goes along. Discipline is the key here.
The film’s enjoyableness is in no small part due to the presence of its star Gyllenhaal who is becoming, one film at a time, a star amidst the likes of Brad Pitt or George Clooney: pretty faces who can fit comfortably into a wide assortment of roles. Find me an actor with the versatility to play in such widely different films as Prince of Persia, Love and Other Drugs, Brothers and Jarhead and you'll find talent.
The intrigue of Source Code, from a structural point of view is that, by breaking itself down into repeating 8 minute intervals, it creates the kind of gnawing suspense that is created from the frustration of playing an impossible level of a video game. You keep using up your continues, trying it a little different each time, yelling, screaming, cursing the game the yet never putting it down or finding satisfaction until you prove to it that not only can it be beat, but that it can be beat by you.
Source Code thus exits in what appears to be a string of recent sci-fi films that approach their intriguing subject matter with intelligence and a knack for storytelling. This arguably began last year with Inception which, despite all of it’s flaws, to be fair, exists on a level all unto itself, and has been followed with the Adjustment Bureau, this one and Rian Johnsons upcoming Looper with Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s not a major work, and it ends about 4 or 5 shots later than it justifiably should, but, it’s a smart and thrilling ride of the variety that seem to be becoming rarer and rarer on the big screen.