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Source Code a lightweight action thriller, and it’s not bad. Because it plays with time, it feels like a well-produced episode of Star Trek. It is less intense than, say, Unstoppable, but it has a little more going on in its head.

Strangers on a Train

Colter thinks they are strangers on a train
Colter thinks they are strangers on a train

Jake Gyllenhaal’s character wakes up on a train, mid-conversation, with a woman he doesn’t remember (Michelle Monaghan). When she calls him “Sean,” he insists his name is Colter Stevens, an air force helicopter pilot. For the next 8 minutes, he argues, makes a scene, gets off the train, gets back on, and continues fighting with Christina, who keeps calling him “Sean.”

There is a perfectly logical explanation, of course, revealed to him — and us — at minute 9, when the train explodes. Colter jolts awake again, this time in a sort of escape pod. The voices from a control room talk him down, remind him that he is indeed an airman, and that his current mission is to go back into the simulation to figure out what’s up with that bomb on the train. He’ll have another 8 minutes — the same 8 minutes — to figure out where it is and who planted it.

Source Code has more mysteries than just the source of the bomb blast. What is the escape pod? Who are the voices? What is the simulation? And if it really is just a simulation, why does it require an air force pilot instead of a computer programmer? And how does Stevens get outta this chickenshit outfit anyway?

Lean and Mean

The script (by Ben Ridley) plays like a decent time-twisting Star Trek episode. There’s a clever setup, interesting fodder for the time warp, and a predictably satisfying ending... with maybe just one final twist for good measure. The movie (directed by Duncan Jones, Moon) also plays a bit like a Star Trek episode in that it looks fairly well polished but still feels small. (I was going to call Source Code “low budget” but it cost $35 million.) There are only a few minimal sets — a train car, a pod, a control room — and except for the CGI effects, it could have been shot pretty cheaply. Jones does some neat stuff in the editing (super cheap!), a trick he finally calls attention to at the end of the movie.

The potential love story isn’t oversold like it was in The Adjustment Bureau. There’s actually a more interesting relationship between Stevens and one of the control-room operators played by Vera Farmiga. She’s a fellow airman, so even though they don’t know each other well, their military camaraderie brings them closer together. They are probably closer than any of the face-to-face relationships in the movie.

There isn’t a lot of subtext in Source Code; you can safely call Source Code “escapist.” It’s more interested in the science-fiction setup than in talking about our times. Actually, the villain is revealed to have motives that feel timely, but they aren’t at all important to the plot of the movie.

Like Groundhog Day, Source Code is about finding the right answer so that you can get on with your life. It’s probably impossible to improve on Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day for repeat-it-until-you-get-it-right Zen philosophy. Still, Source Code carries it just a little further. Bill Murray repeated history until he got it right. In Source Code, Gyllenhaal repeats it until he gets it right... and then repeats it one more time. After all, once we learn to ride a bike, we don’t just move on, we want keep riding to make sure we actually mastered it.