Source Code is not a time travel movie. It is a time re-assignment movie. Dr. Rutlidge (Jeffrey Wright) would want me to make that clear. It is a smart sci-fi movie and a thriller that happens to support my worldview.
Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is part of a military experiment designed by Rutlidge. They send Colter into the body of Sean on a train eight minutes before it explodes. Goodwyn (Vera Farmiga) debriefs Colter each time he returns, so they can find out who bombed the train and stop his next attack on Chicago.
Sounds like a more limited “Quantum Leap.” Sounds like a serious Groundhog Day. It’s more. There are familiar elements of time travel stories for fun. The same woman spills coffee each time. The same guy knocks a bunch of files on the floor. Colter gets better at moving through the scenario to piece together the attack.
The film doesn’t just drop red herrings. It beats up its red herrings. Colter also tries to save Sean’s girlfriend, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), which you’d surely wonder about if you watched the train explosion over and over.
What’s deeper is the science of the source code is both quantum and metaphysical. Rutlidge explains the energy field that remains after death and the memory remaining in a postmortem brain. Together, they let Colter’s unique DNA explore a version of the tragic events. Read any spiritual text for more on the metaphysical connection between all living things.
We see the train scene repeat seven times, and there are two more trips we don’t see. Each time, they think of a new way for Colter to die, triggering his return to the present, so it’s not always in the explosion. The eight minute timeframe is a tight increment of suspense. You watch the clock on both sides, Colter’s and Goodwyn’s.
Some nitpicks don’t undermine the power of the story, but the CGI explosion is really bad. There is also a train jump that looks ridiculous, but I appreciate the effort to slam Jake Gyllenhaal around. The ideas behind the effects are worth it, and some of the shots of flames within the train have an aesthetic beauty, if not realism.
The film ultimately asks a beautiful question. Even if you can’t ultimately change the past, shouldn’t you still do it just for the sake of making that temporary alternate history better? Duncan Jones was not a one hit wonder. He’s the go to guy for intelligent sci-fi with thoughtful themes.