October Sky, in which he played the author and real-life NASA rocket scientist, Homer Hickam, provided my first movie encounter with Jake Gyllenhaal (as a lead). A dozen years later, in his Source Code character, Colter Stevens, we find the same kind of everyday guy – someone we might go to school or work with – in difficult circumstances racing to overcome obstacles to pursue his scientific (and personal) desires. To carry the comparison further, both characters have encouraging, supportive females present and have a difficult relationship with their father.
Gyllenhaal’s Homer Hickam blossomed under the tutelage of a beautiful and sweet, though sickly, high school teacher Miss Riley, who (along with his mother) supported his teen exploits into rocket science in the age of the cold war era race to the moon. Colter Stevens, an army helicopter pilot, pursues a different explosive science.
Stevens awakens from the last thing he remembers – flying a mission in Afghanistan – to find himself in the body of another man named Sean Fentress, aboard a commuter train to Chicago. Moments later an explosion detonates, killing everyone on the train. Stevens awakens again, this time inside a pod of some kind, strapped into his seat as he would be on an aircraft. We hear a disembodied voice trying to communicate with him; eventually Air Force Capt. Colleen Goodwin, played by Vera Farmiga, identifies herself and reminds him who he is. The Source Code project allows him to participate in the last eight minutes of another person’s life, sending him on a mission – no choosing whether to accept it or not – to identify the terrorist responsible for blowing up the train because the same party will activate additional devices later in the day. Goodwin urges Stevens to complete his mission as the Source Code thrusts him repeatedly back into the last eight minutes of Sean Fentress’s life.
While the story line and multiple renditions of the same event beg the inevitable comparisons with such recent flicks as Dennis Quaid’s Vantage Point and Denzel Washington’s Déjà vu or even the older Millenium (airplane crash investigator meets time-travelers), Source Code weaves its own, unique tale. Gyllenhaal hasn’t the same je ne sais quoi of those older actors, but this dis-ease in his own skin lends credibility to his jumping into another man’s life. He doesn’t know it all; he *questions* it all – what Goodwin and the “mad scientist” project head Dr. Rutledge tell him, where he is, and what he can or cannot accomplish. He shows no complacency or acceptance of his supposed fate. Between the deft direction of Duncan Moore, the editing and the other aspects of the story – future bombings to prevent (not just resolve the train bombing) and Stevens’ personal story merging with that of Fentress – the repetitive nature of the plot created a great, building tension rather than becoming tedious.
Source Code is a timely, not-too-distant-future sci-fi story that does not disappoint. If you like mystery/suspense as well as sci-fi, you probably will enjoy Source Code. This review is based on a DVD viewing rather than theatrical release.