Movie review: 'Source Code' interesting, if confusing

Ed Symkus
JAKE GYLLENHALL stars in Source Code

What the heck is going on here? It's a reasonable question — one that could come out of the mouth of confused military man Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), who jolts awake, comfortably seated on a moving train, across from a beautiful woman (Michelle Monaghan) who's chattering away at him as if they're a longtime couple. Stevens' problem: He has no idea who she is or why she keeps calling him Sean. Oh, and he has no idea where he is, or why he's not piloting his chopper in Afghanistan, which is his last clear memory.

No surprise, that question of what's going on in "Source Code" is also going to be asked by viewers, who, hopefully, will be as addled about this scenario as the captain.

Wait, it gets better/worse/more complicated.

The script features a catchphrase of sorts: "Everything's gonna be OK." But it's not very accurate. For instance, when it's first uttered, right there, between these two strangers (well, she doesn't think of him as a stranger), the train just up and explodes ... big bomb ... blows it to kingdom come ... takes out everyone onboard.

Stevens again jolts awake, this time strapped into a not-so-comfortable seat, stuck in some sort of a dark, claustrophobic, blue-gray chamber. Another beautiful woman, this one in a military uniform (Vera Farmiga), is talking to him from a nearby video screen and, even though he still doesn't know where he is, at least she's calling him Capt. Stevens.

A minute or two later, without nearly enough explanation to the captain or viewers, he's back on the train - pre-explosion - having been told by the face on the screen that he must locate the bomb and the bomber before it goes off ... and he has just eight minutes.

What the heck is going on? It really doesn't matter what's going on. This has been a good year for science fiction (well, if you can get past "Battle: Los Angeles"). And "Source Code," the second film from director Duncan Jones, who gave us the understated and underrated "Moon," is a real treat for sci-fi aficionados. Fortunately it's also a crackling thriller that should attract an audience beyond just the standard genre lovers.

The structure of the film bears a resemblance to "Groundhog Day" in that it involves one person repeatedly thrust into the same situation. Stevens keeps getting sent back to the train, keeps getting "killed," and keeps returning to the chamber. But every time he's on the train, he retains all knowledge of his previous visit. And he starts unraveling the mystery of the bomb and the bomber.

The only explanation he gets is that he's on a "source code mission," and its success will prevent any future bombings.

"What's a source code?" he demands of Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), another face on that video screen. "It's very complicated," he's told.

Something about quantum physics, the inability to alter the past, the ability to affect the future, and, oh yeah, synaptic maps and time reassignment.

This is smartly written, pulse-pounding science fiction, fueled by a score that ranges from frantic to unsettling, mixing big, startling visuals with people stuck in cramped spaces.

Square-jawed Gyllenhaal, who has played soldiers in "Brothers" and "Jarhead," has a perfect face and build for this type of character. Farmiga manages to pull off a by-the-book, never-bend-the-rules person who betrays just a flicker of wanting to tell everything to the confounded protagonist.

A terrific third act that addresses the idea that nothing is impossible is slightly marred by unnecessary melodrama, but the gist of the film remains strong. It says to us: Don't even begin to try to figure out where this is all going.

SOURCE CODE (PG-13 for some violence and language.) Cast includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright. 3 1/2 stars out of 4.

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