If most thoughtful action films snagged a GED after dropping out of high school to train full time, Source Code is the kind of action film that went to college. Maybe it didn’t make it much farther than sophomore year philosophy, but that’s a good thing, because the movie knows how to drop some knowledge and still play a wicked, fun game of beer pong.

Source Code is the best movie it could possibly be. Stream-lined and smart, refusing to condescend to its audience, filled with tense moments and active frustration – it may not have the hardest impact, but it’s a movie that sticks in your brain even after you’ve tossed the popcorn bag into the trash.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens – an army helicopter pilot who wakes up on a train that’s about to explode. He’s confused, frightened in a way that won’t allow him to show it, and when the train explodes, things get even weirder. He wakes up in a military training pod and told he has to go back in to find a bomb in order to stop another attack from happening.

So, yes, it’s the best movie that it could possible be, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best movie out there. It’s got the same flavor of Minority Report without quite as big an emotional gut punch as that movie’s ending. In fact, a pre-Summer release seems to symbolically fit the tone perfectly. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, with a bigger brain than most big-muscled Summer flicks have, but it’s not Kaufman levels of inaccessible brilliance.

It’s a sci-fi action flick that took some night courses.

At the center of it all is Gyllenhaal, who plays Colter Stevens like a military man who grew up idolizing Han Solo. He shoots from the hip, but still finds time to fall for the girl and bat his eyelashes to win her over. That breathing charisma helps the role come to life, especially when Stevens is failing or acting like a complete jack ass. Which he does. Several times.

Because he’s us. This movie takes the expertise of a military man and boils it down to the life skill of being assertive. Stevens responds to a bewildering situation the way almost all of us would. As he comes to grips with the reality of his situation (right alongside the audience), he starts to view the entire scenario as a puzzle that needs solving. He tests a lot of different paths, but even failure reveals something new.

Gyllenhaal is also key here in injecting humor into the dire straights. Again, it seems like a natural response – being that confused often leads to laughter. Michelle Monaghan helps with this immensely by being a distraction from the fact that everyone on that train is going to die a thousand deaths while Stevens tries to find the bomb. She’s sweet, beautiful, and more importantly, plays as a foil for Stevens. If he’s a man in a confusing situation, she’s a woman being confused by a man. Still, she plays the situation each time with humility and sharp responses.

The other woman in Stevens’s life is Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who delivers most of the sci-fi exposition of the film, but does so by hiding all of it in forcefulness and moments of surprising tenderness. Her character could have become a walking Google Maps entry in the hands of a lesser actor, but Farmiga is as subdued and humane as ever, even while delivering a computer’s lines of dialogue.

Rounding out the main cast is Jefferey Wright, who plays the inventor of the source code technology with a sense of slightly obsessive creepiness. With this scenario, he’s watching his baby grow up, hit its first tee-ball, get its first kiss, drive its first car, and save its first major city – all at once. It’s a huge test for his creation, and Wright can’t contain his energy despite trying desperately. Sometimes the act comes off as too intense for its surroundings – like a mad scientist dropped into a game of Clue – but for the most part, he’s a strange figure that pushes the story into darkness.

The actors are the movie here. Director Duncan Jones has proven he knows his way around a performance and a cinematographer by delivering such a crisp, exciting film, but the story is really an acting-delivery device. The sci-fi technology and the train scenario are a starting block, but the plot itself is more like that aforementioned game of Clue than the typical three-act fare. Stevens needs to find the bomb and the bomber, and he keeps going in Groundhog Day style until he gains enough information to figure it out.

And maybe that’s where the film falls short of leaping over the bar of Incredible. If the information gathered from each journey had fit together a bit tighter and led to a more startling conclusion, it could have given the movie a boost into higher esteem. But even with the high concept firmly in place, finding the bomb and bomber doesn’t seem to be the main goal of the film. It evolves into something more personal, and that’s a wise shift, but the mystery plot suffers just a bit because of it.

Source Code exists because a young Alfred Hitchcock never got to make a sci-fi movie. The Hitchcock connections aren’t frivolous either (although I invoke his younger years, because Source Code isn’t the work of a master, yet). The opening music borrows from the Bernard Herrmann compositions done for Hitch, the train setting is telling, and the way Jones shoots the passengers echos the iconic filmmaker without copying outright. Just like that particular filmmaker, Jones has created a film that focuses on entertainment first and secretly shoves in the science while you’re too busy smiling and having a good time. The sci-fi is more fantasy here, more a question that gnaws at the viewer after the credits role. Stevens is played with everyman cleverness by Gyllenhaal, but it’s also a character that begs the audience to switch places with him. It’s truly a movie that asks what you would do, and then gives you the opportunity to live vicariously through it as the hero.

Hitchcock would have been proud.

The Upside: Strong performances, a script that trusts the intelligence of its audience, solid action, and a bomb the size of the Chrysler building

The Downside: A lack of a stronger impact, Jefferey Wright slips from time to time, and the mystery portion gets its solution a bit quickly when everything falls into place

On the Side: At one point, Colter Stevens was going to be played by Topher Grace.


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