Suspenseful ‘Source Code’ shows off a versatile Gyllenhaal

We cannot change the past. But in Source Code, a film opening this weekend, director Duncan Jones reminds us we can learn from it, and shows us a world where the past can be revisited through a combination of quantum physics and super computers.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, a military helicopter pilot who finds himself strapped in a dark metallic cockpit and struggling to remember how he arrived in his present state from the moment that formed his most recent memories — a combat mission in Afghanistan.

His only communication is through a large video screen, where icy government officers Goodwin (Vera Farmiga)  and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) inform Stevens that a terrorist bomb destroyed a Chicago bound commuter train that morning. They expect a second attack will soon detonate in Chicago unless they can stop the assailant.

 Stevens’ has been selected to enter the “source code,” a computer program that allows him to enter the doomed train’s final eight minutes by plugging into to a dead passenger’s leftover brain waves. His mission is to identify the assailant in the hopes of preventing him from detonating a larger dirty bomb in Chicago. If he dies or runs out of time, the source code is reset and he is sent back to start at the beginning and try again.

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The urgency to prevent the second attack transforms Gyllenhaal’s character from a disoriented helicopter pilot into a kamikaze. He storms through each reiteration of the eight-minute source code with grim purpose, recklessly disregarding the other passengers. But he also shares some tender moments with Christina (Michelle Monaghan) a cute woman sitting across from him on the train.

Writer Ben Ripley’s script has similarities to films such as 12 Monkeys, Deja Vu and Groundhog Day, and mixes elements of  suspense, mystery, action and romance with some provocative ideas.

Gyllenhaal’s character confronts his daunting task with a mixture of helplessness, desperation and playful resilience. Scenes of the manic captain rummaging through passenger’s luggage and throwing himself at any person who looks suspicious make for some darkly comic moments that should keep audiences grinning, nervously, against the film’s suspenseful context.

 “Jake is a very brave actor,” said Jones. ” We had a great opportunity to rehearse a lot ahead of time so that so when it it came to the shoot it was more improvisational. Some of his reactions we captured seemed unusual, but I was able to insert them in the final cut in a way that made sense and created some humor.”

 As with Jones’ directorial debut in 2008’s Moon, solitude and isolation are underlying themes of the film.

The train passengers Gyllenhaal’s character slowly develops fragmented relationships with inside the source code are essentially ghosts. No matter how Stevens performs in the source code, every person aboard the train has already been killed by the bomb in the real world. It’s a difficult reality to accept for Stevens, whose crush on Christina is apparently from early on the film, and he wonders if he can somehow save the passengers from their inevitable fate.

The love story between Stevens and Christina drags out the film longer than necessary. But Source Code raises enough existential questions for one to ponder in the in closing moments of the film, and long after.

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