In Duncan Jones’s sci-fi thriller Source Code Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who awakens after an enemy ambush to find himself sitting on a Chicago-bound commuter train surrounded by strangers with absolutely no idea how he got there. As he struggles to process his strange new milieu he’s pestered with small-talk by a perky fellow-passenger (Michelle Monaghan) whom he doesn’t recognize but who clearly seems to know him. When he looks into a mirror staring back at him is the image of a man who while handsome is certainly no Jake Gyllenhaal. What Hitchcockian hell has Captain Stevens wandered into? Could it all be a dream?
Before Colter can ponder matters further a massive explosion sends him hurtling into oblivion from which he emerges intact strapped to a chair inside a dark capsule-like enclosure. A woman Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) pops up on a video screen and tersely informs him that he is now part of a new high-tech front in the War on Terror: Source Code an experimental program that allows a person to assume the identity of someone else during the last eight minutes of his or her life. Whoever planted the bomb on the train is said to be readying another far deadlier attack to unleash on Chicago in a matter of hours. The only hope for preventing it is for Colter to repeatedly scour the memory of one of the train's deceased passengers in the hopes of finding clues that might help them determine the identity of the bomber.
Soon Colter finds himself in an existence not unlike that of Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day revisiting the same eight-minute scenario over and over again. As a soldier his first instinct is to try and prevent the explosion from happening and save the lives of the innocents on board. But doing so is futile Source Code’s creepy and condescending inventor Dr. Walter Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) glibly explains. Source Code is not a time-travel machine but rather a “time-reassignment” device built on principles of quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus that Colter's feeble mind couldn’t possibly comprehend. The train bombing is a part of the past which is unalterable; Stevens’ actions to prevent its occurrence however heroic have no real-world ramifications. He is simply a detective whose crime scene is the residual consciousness – the “after-image” – of a dead man’s brain.
But if that were true Colter wouldn’t be able to exit the train make cell phone calls strike a romantic chord with Monaghan’s character or engage in various other activities that we see him perform in the film activities that lie well beyond the experiential purview of the dead man’s final memories. Could it be that the Source Code program is actually something more profound perhaps a kind of portal to a parallel universe? (Jones’s usage of Scott Bakula star of TV’s Quantum Leap in a clever cameo as the Colter's father provides a strong hint.) Colter's own experiences seem to confirm as much: Each time the train-bombing scenario unfolds he notices subtle differences in seemingly trivial details like the timing of a coffee spill. No two universes after all can ever be exactly alike.
This little twist exposes some potential issues with Source Code’s underlying logic chief among them being questions about the reliability of any “evidence” uncovered by Colter in his quantum adventures. The narrative asks us to take a few logical leaps of faith and I humbly suggest you comply. Source Code is more than strong enough as a film – an intelligent probing sci-fi thriller that packs a surprisingly strong emotional punch – to withstand any nitpicking about its theoretical veracity. Director Jones’s ambitions are grander his aim more mainstream his tone more hopeful this time around than in his haunting 2009 breakout hit Moon but the result is just as resonant.