It’s almost a pity that no matter how many good films director Duncan Jones might make, he’ll likely be known first and foremost as David Bowie’s son. It’s a pity largely because the man is doing what few directors dare to do, which is to make thoughtful, fundamentally human science-fiction films that also manage to be entertaining. Fans of Jones’ debut film Moon might find themselves a bit put-off at first with Source Code, since it’s less the arthouse fare that Moon was, and instead presents itself as a Hollywood thriller with sci-fi underpinnings. Digging deeper, however, Source Code is very much of a companion piece to the director’s previous film, playing with the same theme of identity even while shooting for a more mainstream audience.
The movie works on the admittedly far-fetched idea that a secret government project, named Source Code, has learned how to send people’s minds into the “afterglow” of a recently deceased person. Basically, this means one person can inhabit the last eight minutes of another person’s life. In this case, we have Air Force pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) being beamed into the brain of a teacher named Sean Fentress, who was just blown up on a commuter train by an unknown terrorist. Colter’s mission is to figure out—via the last eight minutes of Sean’s life—who bombed the train so that another attack can be thwarted.
Eight minutes isn’t a lot of time, so Colter continually gets transported back into Sean’s mind by his government overseers: his handler (Vera Farmiga) who’s constantly giving him direction, and the callow scientist (Jeffrey Wright) in charge of the operation. As Colter repeatedly goes through same scene, it’s easy to be reminded of Groundhog Day (1993), but Source Code takes the underlying nightmarish aspects of that film—like the idea of living the same day over and over—and instead turns it into something more palpably grievous and sad.
A lot of this comes out as we learn the true nature of not only the Source Code project, but of the ways in which those who control it are willing to take advantage of Colter for their own gain. This ties into Moon’s theme of what lengths those in power are willing to go to take advantage of others. And like Moon, Source Code isn’t a dour film, instead finding the humanity in these subtly grotesque realities it sets up. This sets Source Code apart from many other films in the science-fiction genre, particularly those of the blockbuster variety. Although there is an occasional indulgence of an action scene, there’s also a kind-hearted, almost genteel zeal for exploring the film’s fundamental questions. As a result, the film works best when it’s not bogged down inside the mystery that pushes the plot forward, but rather when its examining ideas of the true nature of life and destiny. This isn’t quite enough to make the film great, but it does make Source Code a worthy piece of entertainment. Rated PG-13 for some violence including disturbing images, and for language.