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Stranger on an Unstoppable Train

Source Code (2011)

Jonathan Wenk/
Summit Entertainment

As the biological son of Ziggy Stardust, Duncan Jones has science fiction in his DNA. That God-given gift, when combined with the young Zowie Bowie’s grooming on movies such as “Solaris” and “Blade Runner,” might not have guaranteed that he’d become one of the genre’s premiere cinematic purveyors; but if you had to make a futures bet in the ’80s, well, you could have done a lot worse.

“Source Code,” his sophomore effort, is a safer, more streamlined venture than his ambitious debut “Moon,” a one-man show starring Sam Rockwell. Still, the filmmaker derives grand twisty pleasures out of the “Groundhog Day”-on-a-train premise, with the film’s smart contemporary allusions, its protagonist’s stark emotional journey and a Hitchcockian aptitude for creatively maximizing the potential of a constrained setting.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Capt. Colter Stevens, a war veteran forcibly consigned to a secretive military program in which a fellow soldier (Vera Farmiga) and a neurotic scientist (Jeffrey Wright) propel him through a cross-dimensional journey into the past, in which he takes over the body of a recent train bombing victim. Capt. Stevens’s mission: Spend the final eight minutes on that ill-fated train locating the bomb and the bomber. “Die” over and over again if need be.

“Source Code” offers less of a filmmaking challenge than “Moon,” but it once again spotlights Mr. Jones’s cinematic muscle. Subtly shifting points of emphasis with each return to the train while offering a full-scale arc in character development and a smart evolution in tone, Mr. Jones demonstrates an all-too-rare aptitude for molding classical cinematic technique with experimental touches. Though limited in large part to the speeding train and the Source Code program’s offices, the film smoothly transitions from a disorienting thriller to a big-hearted, evocative portrait of ill-fated love.

The picture in fact offers a stark lesson in the ways sharp filmmaking can enliven a tepid plot, as Mr. Jones and his energetic star imbue the film with levels of feeling and subtle smarts that de-emphasize the simplistic hunt for a serial bomber premise. “Source Code” is underwritten by the sort of strong moral debate that characterizes the best science fiction, in this case one centered on the balance between Capt. Stevens’s unique opportunity to save lives with the need to respect his own humanity. At the same time, the movie offers a veritable clinic in the right ways to reshape and restructure the same scene to give the work constructed out of it a deeper, more lasting resonance.

As Capt. Stevens’s response to his predicament shifts from incredulousness to firm resolve while his feelings grow for train companion Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the film becomes much more than a detective story with a sci-fi bent. Fate, true love and other big themes enter the mix, culminating in a consideration of human nature itself, asking that age-old, revealing question: What would you do if you knew you had just minutes to live?


Opened on April 1 in the United States and Britain.

Directed by Duncan Jones; written by Ben Ripley; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Chris Bacon; production design by Barry Chusid; costumes by Renee April; produced by Mark Gordon, Jordan Wynn and Philippe Rousselet; released by Summit Entertainment (United States) and Optimum Releasing (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Jake Gyllenhaal (Colter Stevens), Michelle Monaghan (Christina Warren), Vera Farmiga (Colleen Goodwin), Jeffrey Wright (Dr. Rutledge), Michael Arden (Derek Frost), Cas Anvar (Hazmi), Russell Peters (Max Denoff) and Frédérick De Grandpré (Sean Fentress Reflection).


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