Duncan Jones’s follow up to Moon is an inventive, entertaining and philosophical sci-fi thriller.

Source Code plays out like a slick and assured Hitchcockian thriller, with an injection of complex, new-fangled narrative nuance and invention a la Inception. If Christopher Nolan had remade Groundhog Day on a train, it would probably look a lot like this. Throw in some Matrix-style multi-layered alternate reality sequences, as well as Donnie Darko’s moody contemplation of parallel worlds, and you have a movie mosaic of themes and styles which at a glance is distracting but look closer and its intricacies make a lasting impression.

You might think that with so many influences to draw upon Source Code might turn out to be a jack of all genres and a master of none but you’d be dead wrong. It handles the pressure of its peers with considerable cool and a delicate balance of form and content.

The form takes the shape of a clever plot device that reveals one piece of the plot’s puzzle at a time. Imagine being in someone else’s memory during the last eight minutes of his life, with these eight minutes being replayed again and again for the length of your average blockbuster. This is what US Army captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) must contend with when he wakes up in some other guy’s body on a train that’s about to blow up, with only eight minutes to find and defuse a bomb that has already gone off!

As to the content, it’s fair to say that Duncan Jones’s unusually intellectual take on the action movie genre is not quite as off the wall or arty as his quirky character study Moon (2009) might have led us to expect but it’s certainly not as one dimensional as most. In fact, Jones deftly handles two dimensions here. In one, Gyllenhaal plays the vulnerable but valiant soldier whose ingrained sense of duty leads him to attempt to save his fellow passengers despite being told that he ‘cannot alter this reality while inside the Source Code’. In the other, Vera Farmiga plays the conscientious Captain Woodward who is sympathetic to Colter’s dilemma but must ensure that he completes his mission: to use the memory of this earlier incident on the train to gather clues about the identity of the bomber so as to prevent a second attack.

Not letting the science stand in the way of good fiction, Jones makes no attempt to justify the more ridiculous elements of Ben Ripley’s script, perfectly content to dazzle us with well-choreographed set-pieces and some poignant exchanges between Gyllenhaal and Farmiga, as she tries to rectify her organization’s noble but wayward intentions. The plot provides an imaginative but flimsy scientific explanation of how some low-key experimental science division of the US government, headed up by unethical and mad scientist type Dr Rutledge, has somehow managed to figure out a way of connecting the mind of its subjects to the memory of the recently deceased.

Despite being told that he cannot change the past or save the people on the train because they are already dead, this being a Hollywood blockbuster, obviously Colter’s going to ignore that completely and try anyway. Besides, he’s not really Colter Stevens, he’s Jake Gyllenhaal and he outran oblivion in the Day after Tomorrow, what’s a little inter-dimensional hopscotch for the Prince of Persia? He’s got this.

Jones makes a pretty good stab at justifying Colter’s attempts to do the impossible during Source Code’s more fictional excesses, flexing his artistic license with an interesting if implausible idea about creating a new, alternate reality when you change an existing one… from the past… through a memory. This nonsensical notion doesn’t feel all that ludicrous, though, because in line with the film’s illogical logic, it actually sort of makes sense.  

Who knew epistemology could be this much fun? Clearly Jones knows how to engage his audience in more ways than one, a trait which reveals an uncommon maturity of expression in a director with so little screen time under his belt. Source Code also has a few moments of brevity which lighten the mood. But like most good thrillers it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The audience probably appreciates it a little more as a result.

To say that Source Code is an ambitious second film is an understatement. Its success, though, is built on the fact that it is feverishly enjoyable both as a suspenseful detective story and as a philosophical thriller, though undoubtedly closer to fantasy than science.

Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...