What would you have if you take the idea of ‘time repeats itself’ from ‘Groundhog Day’, the ‘see everything in the same time period from a different perspective’ from ‘Vantage Point’, the ‘leap into the body of another person’ concept from ‘Quantum Leap’?
You might have a tight little thriller called ‘Source Code’. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Sgt’ Colter Stevens, an airman in battle in Afghanistan. But he is no longer in Afghanistan, and he might no longer be Stevens. He finds himself on a commuter train on a bright morning heading into Chicago. He has no recollection of what is doing there, how he got there, or even who he really is. He is just experiencing everything without any context, until after 8 minutes, a bomb destroys the train and the passengers.
And the movie ends… just kidding! So Stevens is confused and disoriented as to what is going on. He can communicate via video and voice link to Goodwin (played by Vera Farmiga), a female commander who is guiding his operation. And his operation is? Go back to the train into the body of one of the passengers named Sean, and find the clues to lead to the bomber. There is a threat of a much larger (and nuclear dirty) bomb going off a little later in the same day. Stevens must repeat the same 8 minutes of time until the bomb explodes, and each time he must gain more information, until he can determine who planted the bomb.
His seatmate on the train is Christina (played by Michelle Monaghan), a very attractive friendly person who wants to have a deeper relationship with Sean. But Stevens, as Sean, has no time for idle chit-chat. He goes in several directions, attempting to discern which of the fellow passengers is the culprit. He follows a foreign-looking guy to see if he is the one to set off the bomb. He questions the slacker software coder, the college student, the uptight businessman. He finds out some different clues each time he returns to retrace his steps. There is something that he has missed and he needs to find it. There is the comic from a TV show, a nurse from Walter Reed Medical, a soft-spoken passenger who has lost a wallet, and even the conductor himself.
There are some segments (outside of the train) when Stevens is alone in some type of chamber and he is communicating with Goodwin at a remote facility. Goodwin is a no-nonsense soldier who needs Stevens to follow orders and stay with the plan. But her inner voice is hearing the pleas from Stevens for more information and background. He calls over Dr. Rutledge (played by Jeffery Wright). He is the designer of ‘Source Code’. It is a complex piece of science and software that takes brain impulses from recently dead (and near dead) people and creates a way to ‘rerun’ the final 8 minutes of life.
So if the bombing has occurred already, and Sean is dead, then is Colter Stevens also dead? He is not able to get a complete answer from anyone. He is living in the last 8 minutes as Sean because of some genetic matching algorithms, or something. But it is only Stevens who is capable of going back to find the clues to prevent a much larger tragedy. But if he can figure out the ultimate plans of the bomber, might he also be able to prevent the initial bombing also?
These are questions that are rattled around and might have had some answers in the movie. The concept is presented as an ultimate anti-terror tool. But the science is a little muddled. Does Stevens, when embedded in Sean’s brain/memory, become Sean? Does he exist as Stevens any more? Does Sean exist any more? If it all is in a virtual existence, as brain impulses in a giant computer program, does it affect reality? These are heavy questions, but never fully resolved.
But those are such minor points overall in such a good film. The acting is superb in all the major characters. There are a few minor characters that are only partially fleshed-out. This includes the villain, who has a very vague idea about why terror should be used to destroy so many lives. I would expect a more intense character with more conviction, but hey, it does not affect the outcome.
The action is well portrayed and very effective. The special affects are somewhat limited, but they are used, they are very well done. One minor irk: when a supposed ‘dirty’ bomb goes off, there is no requirement that it should have a nuclear ‘mushroom cloud’ shape. And if it is a dirty bomb, is that why the mushroom cloud looks dark and black? What’s that about?
Also in the movie, as the voice of Steven’s father in a brief cameo role, is Scott Bakula. He was from ‘Quantum Leap’, so he should know well all about going from one body into another.
This movie is from director Duncan Jones. His prior release was called ‘Moon’ and dealt with isolation, identity confusion and science fiction cloning. He has again taken a science fiction story to study more deeply the personality and psyche of a person in a difficult spot.
Overall, with some of the ideas from other movies, perhaps this ought to be called ‘Groundhog Vantage Source Quantum Point Day Code Leap’.