Source Code is excellent science fiction

According to programming lingo, "source code" is the underlying language that establishes the rules that govern a computer system. In Source Code, a cerebral and engrossing sci-fi mystery starring Jake Gyllenhaal, the titular "code" is a top-secret government project that promises to send the consciousness of one person (say, the soldier played by Gyllenhaal) into the body of another person. Of course there are a few catches: You can only jump into people after they're dead, and you only get to replay the last eight minutes of their lives.

While these ground rules limit the technology's applications, the government has a very specific use in mind: Gyllenhaal's Captain Coulter Stevens will jump into the body of a passenger on a commuter train bound for Chicago that has already been destroyed in a terrorist attack. The bomber has promised more spectacular violence is imminent, and Stevens is tasked with figuring out which of his fellow riders is the culprit before nuclear hell is unleashed on the Second City.

And so it begins: Capt. Stevens awakes in his train seat, a pretty brunette (Michelle Monaghan) sitting across from him says she's decided to take his advice, a conductor asks for his ticket, a woman in the aisle spills coffee on his foot. On his first trip in, Stevens is disoriented and confused, and he promptly fails his mission when the train goes boom. Post explosion, Stevens wakes up in the "real world" strapped into some kind of cockpit while a project handler (Up In The Air's great Vera Farmiga) talks to him via video screen and tries to find out what he has learned. When he tells her not much, she pushes a few buttons and he repeats the eight-minute loop — except events on the train keep changing.

I hesitate to say much more, as there is great pleasure to be had in trying to figure out where Source Code is going. (Just picture Bill Murray's hilarious Groundhog Day stripped of the laughs and thrown into a cinematic blender with Inception and you'll get the general idea.) Director Duncan Jones has shot a visually enthralling movie (Chicago looks fabulous) that speeds along like an express train headed for a surprising final destination. Source Code is wonderful, heady, entertaining sci-fi that owes a large part of its success to fleshed-out characters that the audience will genuinely care about.

Leading that pack is Capt. Coulter Stevens. As played by Gyllenhaal, Stevens is a brave patriot who has completely lost control of his destiny. He's physical, rugged and driven, but he's also wounded, confused and just wants to talk to his dad one more time. It's the best work by the lead of an action movie since Matt Damon first played Bourne. Gyllenhaal is on screen for almost the entire running time, and there isn't one moment where he falters. I'd also single out the work of Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright, who play the folk who run the "Source Code" program and who are hiding its true nature. Of all the actors, only Monaghan fails to impress, but in fairness, she's not given much to play outside the usual damsel-in-distress notes.

Source Code is the science fiction movie for people who don't like science fiction. There's very little geek-speak (I've basically covered it all in this review), and the movie is much more interested in the human dimensions of its story than in high technology and Hollywood gloss (though both are present to satisfy the sci-fi fans in the audience). It's also one of the best movies of the year so far.

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