Simply put, SOURCE CODE is basically a sci-fi version of GROUNDHOGS DAY. Its an eagerly anticipated follow-up to filmmaker Duncan Jones’ (David Bowie’s son) introductory film, 2009’s excellent MOON. Over the past year, I read various news and gossip items from internet sources about SOURCE CODE, but the plot was held in strict secrecy. I have to say that for as much as I looked forward to seeing Duncan Jones’ next effort, the trailer for SOURCE CODE left me underwhelmed. For one, I have never bought into Jake Gyllenhaal as a leading man sorts. Furthermore, a story about a guy continuously reliving a train that gets bombed so he can find the killer just didn’t sound very original or interesting. I figured there’s most likely a twist in the story that’s probably going to make up for the pedestrian storyline. After all, MOON was one of the most intelligent science fiction screenplays I have ever seen so it would be no less than a surprise for Jones to tell such a straightforward, clichéd story. When the reviews for SOURCE CODE came out and they were overwhelmingly favorable (90% according to Rotten Tomatoes), I became convinced the trailer must be alluding to a much weaker storyline than what the film actually contains. Well, I turned out to be both right and wrong. SOURCE CODE is a solid sophomore effort from Jones that unfortunately gets too bogged down by unnecessary story elements.

Without giving anything away, SOURCE CODE is about a U.S. soldier, Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), who repeatedly finds himself on a commuter train headed to Chicago that blows up, killing everyone aboard. However, Stevens does not get killed. Instead, he must re-experience the same 8 minutes on that train until he can find out who set the bomb on the train. Each time the train blows up, Stevens comes back to ‘reality,’ where he is briefed by Lt. Goodwin (played by the ravishing Vera Farmiga) before being sent back to the train to complete his mission. There is much more to this story, but I don’t want to give anything away so let me just say that from here on out, the remainder of this review contains major spoilers.

Some executive in Hollywood decided long ago that Jake Gyllenhaal was going to be a leading man and a big box office star. To that end, Gyllenhaal has been cast in films like ZODIAC, BROTHERS, PRINCE OF PERSIA, LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS, and now SOURCE CODE. Where he has starred in films that have been successful, the success of those films wasn’t because of him. It was because the story was good, the film was directed by someone of renown, or other actors carried the film. Its not that Gyllenhaal is a bad actor because he certainly isn’t. Its just that, he doesn’t have the screen presence of someone like Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, or Julia Roberts to carry a movie. On the other hand, to sort of contradict what I just said, Gyllenhaal comes the closest to attaining that very screen presence in SOURCE CODE. Here, he brings his affable, dorky sense of humor to the character of Colter Stevens to an effective result. It works especially well during scenes of action and suspense. However, where the actor falters is during the film’s dramatic moments. For example, in the scenes where Colter Stevens attempts different ways of finding out who the bomber is, Gyllenhaal brings a nice balance of comic relief with the tenseness of the situation. However, Gyllenhaal’s laid back demeanor doesn’t play so well where he gets serious and discusses meaning of life issues with his love interest (Michelle Monaghan). In the latter scenes, its difficult to take Gyllenhaal seriously because he never seems to take himself too seriously.

Another problem with the Colter Stevens character is how seemingly disinterested he is in saving lives. After he is told that he must find the bomber or else thousands of more lives will be lost to another bomb attack, Stevens’ spends more time in the train either developing his interest in the girl or trying to figure out what the hell is going on with him in the real world. It almost made me dislike his character for being so uncaring. I understand that his own situation is a shitty one given the fact that he’s basically dead and is being barely kept alive for the sole purpose of being the government’s pet in a secret experimental program. At the same time, however, he is the only one who can save a bunch of lives from being blown up.

One of the biggest issues I had with SOURCE CODE was the decision to include a love interest in the story. I get the feeling that this may have been more of a studio decision than something that Duncan Jones or the screenwriter came up with. Michelle Monaghan’s character doesn’t flow with the rest of the story, especially during the 3rd Act when Colter Stevens decides to go back to the train (after he’s already caught the bomber and the mission is complete) just so he can save the girl (even though she’s already dead in the real world and this is just a computer simulation). I didn’t mind having a principle female character on the train, but Stevens’ decision to save the girl and then end the film with the two of them hanging out in downtown Chicago felt forced and clichéd. This is especially so given the fact that Stevens discovers later in the film that he too is already pretty much dead and this affects him emotionally partly because he never had a chance to say goodbye to his father. I think his character would have been more sympathetic if the filmmakers spent more time with that thread of the story (instead of just one short phone conversation) rather than force fitting a love story in the end.

My two favorite characters in SOURCE CODE are Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright). Aside from the fact that they deliver great performances, both characters are mysterious and its through them that we learn the secrets of the story. I especially enjoyed Goodwin’s interactions with Colter Stevens as Stevens attempts to find out what is really going on. You can see the conflict in Goodwin’s face as she struggles to hide the truth from Stevens. Dr. Rutledge is an equally compelling character who at first comes off as a sympathetic, crippled scientist who’s merely trying to get Stevens to help save millions of lives. Throughout the course of the movie, however, the doctor’s manipulative and selfish intent reveals itself. Wright does a great job playing the baddie here.

SOURCE CODE is a cross between an X-FILES episode and even more so, a Philip K. Dick story. With LIMITLESS and THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU being released this spring, Hollywood seems to have been re-inspired by the themes in Dick’s stories. Ironically, past Philip K. Dick adaptations have usually not been successful, but now we get three films (1 of which is an adaptation and the other two clearly being inspired by him) that are all well done. SOURCE CODE is also consistent with Duncan Jones’ developing theme of the person’s reality not actually being reality. In MOON, Sam Rockwell’s character realizes that his three-year stint on the moon working for a company is not exactly the entire truth. Similarly, Colter Stevens realizes that he’s not really on a train and, furthermore, he’s not really alive in the sense that he thinks he’s alive. These are great concepts to play with for science-fiction stories and Duncan Jones has managed to pull it off well with his second foray even though SOURCE CODE could have been a much stronger film without the love interest, with a more original story, and a far better ending that doesn’t end in schmaltz. After MOON, I wanted something more complex and intellectual, but compared to shit like BATTLE: LOS ANGELES and the upcoming, guaranteed-to-be-horrible TRANSFORMERS 3, I’ll take SOURCE CODE the way it is any day for the rest of my life.