“Source Code” opens with confusion: Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up, face pressed against the window of a commuter train. He doesn’t know where he is, or how he got there. When he looks in the bathroom mirror, the face he sees is not his own. Yet no one else seems to think anything is amiss. Indeed, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the attractive woman sitting across from him, appears to be in the middle of a perfectly normal conversation with him.
Figuring out exactly what’s going on is just one of the pleasures of “Source Code,” a Hitchcockian sci-fi thriller from director Duncan Jones. Mr. Jones‘ directorial debut, “Moon” (2009), featured a lonely Sam Rockwell descending into madness while manning a tiny moon base. Like that little-seen but much-praised film, “Source Code” is a cleverly claustrophobic metaphysical mystery as much about choice and free will as whodunit and how. This time, however, the hero is stuck not on the moon, but in time.
Shortly after Capt. Stevens first wakes up, the train explodes in a ball of fire — and Colter wakes up again. This time, he’s in a dank metal capsule with no apparent exit. On a small video monitor, Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), a fellow military officer, appears. She explains that just a few hours earlier, a bomb blew up a commuter train heading toward Chicago. Another, larger attack is on the way.
Thanks to source code, a technology developed by Goodwin’s colleague, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the military can send one very special individual back to the scene of the crime to investigate the final eight minutes before the first explosion. “It’s not time travel,” Rutledge explains. “It’s time reassignment.” Stevens can’t change the past, he’s told, but perhaps he can find the bomber and help prevent another attack.
From there, it’s a race both through and against time: Stevens travels back to the train’s ill-fated final minutes again and again, attempting to discover who planted the bomb before the next attack takes place. Conveniently, his train car is stocked full of red herrings in the form of a variety of suspicious characters, each of whom must be investigated.
But the real mystery here involves the source code, and Stevens‘ role in its eerie workings. Director Jones is far more interested in exploring the technology’s quasi-mystical undertones, and he weaves bits of string theory and philosophy-class thought experiments into his classic thriller setup. He also borrows liberally from films like “12 Monkeys” and “Deja Vu,” as well as the TV series “Quantum Leap” — a debt he acknowledges by casting that film’s star, Scott Bakula, as the voice of Stevens‘ father.
It’s all very high concept, but, with the aid of his uniformly excellent cast, Mr. Jones skillfully grounds his intellectual gamesmanship in a genuinely affecting emotional reality. That goes a long way toward papering over the movie’s frequent minor implausibilities. “Source Code” may begin with confusion, but it doesn’t take long to see that it’s got both brains and heart.
TITLE: “Source Code”
CREDITS: Directed by Duncan; screenplay by Ben Ripley
RATING: Rated PG-13 for repeated violent train bombings
RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS