It is easy to picture the Source Code team pitching the film to the studios as Groundhog Day morphed into a time-travel thriller. The latter is one of the more popular sub-genres of science fiction in the movies, perhaps because so many of us wish, at times, that we could go back into the past and take a different road. But not only is Source Code superior to the common run of time-travel flicks, it is one of the best films of the year so far, terrifically exciting and often surprisingly moving.
Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot serving in Afghanistan, wakes up on a Chicago commuter train, being talked to by a cute brunette (Michelle Monaghan) who seems to know him well and who calls him "Sean". His reflection in the train window shows the face of a stranger. He is still poleaxed with confusion when the train blows up.
Stevens comes to again, this time in what looks like the cockpit of a crashed aircraft. On a screen above him a cool blonde air force officer (Vera Farmiga) gives him a partial explanation of what is going on.
A bomb went off on a Chicago train earlier that morning and Stevens is part of an experiment whereby his mind has been implanted in the body of one of the passengers for the eight minutes before the explosion.
She and her boss, a cold scientist played by Jeffrey Wright, are going to keep sending Stevens back to relive those last eight minutes until he can spot the bomber. The plan is not to stop the explosion, but to prevent a bigger attack later on.
Every time Stevens goes back he gets to know the cute girl better before undergoing the agony of the explosion. It also becoming clear that the air force officer is not telling him the whole truth about his predicament.
Screenwriter Ben Ripley and director Duncan Jones are clearly steeped in movie classics – in particular there is much of Hitchcock in Source Code – but they relish their references without compromising the film's tension. Gyllenhaal is both likeable and believable here, while Farmiga fully exploits her role as the film's most complicated and intriguing character.
Source Code has its flaws, including an ending that arguably cheats its internal logic. That said, it is superior entertainment, provocative, intelligent and oddly intimate. It establishes Jones (who happens to be David Bowie's son) as the most skilled of a new generation of British directors.