"Source Code" is not just good science fiction, it's also a good movie. This has been a solid season for movies with sci-fi-like concepts that did not rely heavily on special effects. "The Adjustment Bureau" was a solid film. "Limitless" may not have been as bright as its main character, but it was a fun ride throughout, and even if I wanted to complain about the Hollywood ending, I have to admit that sometimes it's nice to see the good guys win. I'm not going to tell you who wins in "Source Code," but needless to say, if you've seen the previews and the commercials, you've only started to unravel the layers of this movie.
"Source Code" is the story of a special air force division at Nellis Air Force base. That's an interesting choice of setting. Nellis is also the base from which many of our unmanned drones are operated. So, in real life, you have Air Force pilots taking control of robots thousands of miles away, and in the movie you have a pilot taking control of a person in the last eight minutes of his life.
A bomb has exploded on a Chicago commuter train, and the military is using a new top secret (and perhaps too fantastically detailed) technology to inhabit the body of one of the victims just before the bomb goes off. The movie opens with Captain Stevens' (Jake Gyllenhal) first trip into the past. Almost immediately, though, we realize that this story is not just about the bomb. In fact, the story of Captain Stevens and his adjustment to his new role is far more interesting than the silly bomb plot.
After all, the bomb plot lasts 8 minutes. Every time Stevens jumps back in time, he only has 8 minutes to figure out everything he can and unravel the mystery of who set the bomb. If he can find the bomber, the military can stop a future attack from happening. But imagine if Stevens had learned the answer right away? We would be watching an 8 minute long movie. Over and over again we see those 8 minutes play out. They change every time. We learn new details. The plot starts to stretch the boundaries of the time travel rules that it has created, though it all wraps up neatly enough in the end.
Still, the bomb plot is only 8 minutes long, repeated over and over. The real interest is in Captain Stevens. He starts to admire, then fall in love with the girl in the seat opposite. Her coffee date has been possessed by an Air Force Captain, but she isn't really privy to that. One of my only complaints about the movie is that we never really experience any time with the character who lived in the body before Captain Stevens arrived. The original owner of that body simply disappears. He is never a part of the plot, not even a consideration. But that's fine, because Captain Stevens' story is intricate, and far more deep than the commercials and previews might suggest.
That's what makes "Source Code" a good movie. There is a real story here. It isn't just a science fiction conceit with loads of special effects and a half-witted plot thrown in near the end for good measure (cough – "Inception" – cough). It's a real story with real characters. Captain Stevens is character who must come to terms with his job, and in some ways his past. His new friend Christina (Michelle Monaghan), slowly, in 8 minute lives, decides to change her entire direction. As much as she can in short bursts, Christina's character develops feelings for the new man her companion has literally become.
The movie relies on very few special effects. There are digital transition scenes as Stevens jumps in and out of the past, but otherwise there is no flash and dazzle. The movie relies on the story and the characters to build interest. It tells a great story, and it comes to a conclusion that is unsettling and satisfying all at once.
"Source Code" also seems to have something to say about fate, free will and even the nature of our relationships. The science fiction element takes a distant back seat to the human drama up front.
Which is not to say "Source Code" is not good science fiction. It's a solid sci-fi movie. As director Duncan Jones showed with his last film, "Moon," you don't need lots of dazzling effects for good sci-fi, even if the movie is set in outer space. Like "Moon," which was set entirely on a distant lunar base, "Source Code" mainly stays in one place, a commuter train heading for downtown.
There are some fascinating surprises. As a viewer, you'll be frustrated that you don't understand exactly what's going on, you won't understand some of the things that you see, until the secrets are revealed to you. But the same goes for Captain Stevens, and the mystery makes sense in the context of the story. When all is finally revealed, the characters are honest and forthcoming. There is no beating around the bush, and nothing is kept from either the audience or the main character unnecessarily. It is a truth that is both shocking and rewarding, the way a good sci-fi story should be.
I'm not going to reveal whether the bomber is eventually found, but I will say that when the bomb-plot reaches its climax, it feels almost incidental. By the time that situation reaches a resolution, one way or another, the audience is already engrossed by the rest of the movie. The characters and the will they/won't they drama between Stevens and Christina. The angst and urgency of the military command at Nellis AFB. Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright are mostly wasted in their stoic, all-business roles, but in the end it serves a purpose. It is also a joy that the obstacles in the path of our hero are not ignorant and annoying superiors, as is often the case in lazy military or bureaucratic dramas.
In the end, "Source Code" is a movie I can highly recommend. It's good sci-fi that isn't bogged down by effects. It's a good drama that isn't held back by poorly-written characters who don't have the intelligence or foresight of the audience cringing at their every move. It's fun entertainment, with a fast-moving plot and a steady feed of interesting details and twists. Best of all, by the end the movie has become something entirely different, and perhaps even better than it was when it started.