Source Code: jumping someone else’s train

You know what I hate? Loads of stuff, including nightclubs, cold-callers and snails eating my courgette plants. But for now, I’m thinking about grandiose portentous high-concept science-fiction thrillers that go on about an hour too long and eventually jettison any vaguely interesting and original concepts they might have started out with in favour of painfully over-extended action sequences involving things exploding. I really hate that.

If you do too, but you’re still in the market for ideas-driven thrills executed with old-style flair, then you’re not going to do much better than Source Code, the new film by Duncan Jones, director of the excellent Moon, and son of David Bowie. The worst thing about Source Code is its none-more-bland title, and the second worst is its unpromising trailer – other than that, this is a rare mainstream entertainment that throws out lots of intriguing ideas, develops them properly, twists them in unpredictable ways that never feel inconsistent with the main premise, and, most unusually of all, resolves it all satisfyingly and surprisingly without recourse to any ludicrous reversals or deus ex machina. I’m very impressed.

It simply won’t do to go into too much plot detail here, but the set-up’s simple enough: a US army captain (Jake Gyllenhaal, rather fittingly, given the one or two Donnie Darko echoes here) find himself suddenly in another man’s body on a train approaching Chicago. He doesn’t know why or how he’s there, and spends a few minutes blundering around and weirding out his female companion before the train is perumptorily blown up by a terrorist bomb, killing everyone aboard. The captain then wakes up in some sort of isolation capsule, where shady and evasive authority figures inform him that he’s been chosen to go on a mission to identify the perpetrator of the incident by inhabiting one of the train passenger’s bodies for the eight minutes before the explosion, and that he can have repeated attempts at the mission. What ensues is highly reminiscent of Groundhog Day (and also A Matter Of Life And Death in some ways), but has considerably more urgency, and the true state of the captain’s circumstances when he’s not in the train scenario starts to become the basis of a parallel, and no less involving, plot strand.

Source Code fairly cracks along, and at no point becomes reliant on special effects or techno-babble to keep your interest. Gyllenhaal’s character is intelligent and resourceful, but he’s no super-hero and he makes a number of false moves before he gets a handle on what’s really going on. The main plot wraps up a lot earlier in the running time than you might expect, leaving room for a coda that puts an unexpected spin on what we’ve just seen, and given the complexities of a time-bending narrative like this I couldn’t spot any major loose ends or plot holes. If only all blockbusters were as elegant and intelligent as this.

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