When decorated army helicopter pilot Captain Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko) wakes up in the body of an unknown man aboard a busy commuter train to Chicago, he soon discovers he's part of a mission to locate the bomber responsible for the explosion which had earlier killed everyone on board. With a second, larger device set for detonation in downtown Chicago the same day, Steven's mission is to locate the bomb, discover the person/s responsible and report the intelligence back to Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin (the lovely Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air), his only source of communication. As an assignment unlike any he's ever experienced, Stevens learns that he's part of a unproven government experiment called the "Source Code", a computer program that enables him to take over someone else's body in his or her last eight minutes of life. Stevens is isolated inside a chamber where Goodwin urgently explains to him via a computer monitor the details of his assignment, while remaining sensitive to his obvious confusion. Stevens' quest is to not only decipher his mysterious mission parameters, but also to make sense of the inexplicable images flashing through his memory and learn the whereabouts of his unit.
Stevens is warped into the body of Sean Fentress, a history teacher, where he is free to function as he likes. The events will play out the same way if he remains passive, but the other passengers react to whichever course his investigation takes. Dr Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright, Broken Flowers) informs him that the "Source Code" is not a simulation, but a visit into the past in the form of an alternate reality. He has no hope of saving any of the passengers onboard, because they are already dead, but his highest priority is to gather the intel that could save millions of people in the near future. With just eight minutes to retrieve the intelligence, Fentress is killed a number of times and Stevens is sent back to the chamber. While simultaneously trying to decipher how he became involved in this experiment, Stevens re-lives the incident over and over, romantically bonding with the woman sitting opposite him, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), and piecing together clues about the act of terrorism and also his own personal situation each time.
I was concerned that the risky premise would fall apart under the weight of its plot mechanics. With continuity issues threatening nearly every scene, it is all handled quite assuredly by Jones. Every venture onto the train is shot in a different way, and although much of the dialogue is the same, Stevens is viewing the events with fresh eyes, determined to try something different. It deftly avoids the monotony that a film like Vantage Point (2008) did not take liberty in pursuing. Ben Ripley's cleverly constructed script brings the human qualities of the characters to the forefront of the technology, the action and the gimmicks. I thought the film's middle third took on a few too many tangents, introducing the alternate reality as a medium between Stevens' actual existence and the train, and the estranged relationship between Stevens and his father. It raises a few more questions than the film is ultimately able to answer.
Ripley is also not too keen to reveal things easily either, as Steven is forced to plead with Goodwin to tell him what is going on. If the film stuck to the Murder on the Orient Express-like mystery, it would have remained pretty concise. The layers of plot add welcomed depth to the script, but it becomes a little more complex than it needs to be. I found myself a little confused on occasions. By the upbeat conclusion, which is a genuine crowd-pleaser, I realised that I had enjoyed the film immensely. There is a thrilling mystery at the core; a soul, a sense of humanity, a willingness to live and a fierce determination to save others. I was still unsure whether it all made sense though. Perhaps its better not to delve in too far into it. With a bigger budget, and more pressure on his sophomore project, I think the safe conclusion to the film was the smart choice to make.
I thought that Vera Farmiga was great, functioning as Stevens' true source of life. Her luminous beauty and gorgeous blue eyes effortlessly extenuated an often overwhelming sadness for Stevens' unfortunate situation. She has a desire to assist him, even in retaliation to the inhumane protocol outlined by Dr. Rutledge. I did not like Jeffrey Wright's bizarre over-the-top performance, though. Michelle Monaghan and her lovely smile were very serviceable again and there was a charming and genuine connection between her and Gyllenhaal. The film's emotional resonance comes through Gyllenhaal, whose commanding and powerful performance is amongst his best. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Gyllenhaal is free to do whatever he likes within the "Source Code" and amidst his desperate search for himself and the bomber, his playful charisma adds another layer to the film, one of humour and mischief.
Verdict: a smart, compelling and action-packed Sci-fi thriller, with a sensational performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. Likely to be one of the better blockbusters of the season, this is certainly one to check out.
My Rating: 4 Stars (B)