Dir. Duncan Jones
(2011, PG-13, 93 min)

Source Code is a science-fiction film that reminds me of A.I. and Minority Report in how the world it creates seems to expand rather than narrow, opening up a wealth of new possibilities instead of just steering us towards a particular end; you could make an excellent sequel in a different narrative format dealing entirely with the implications of this film. Careful not to spoil any crucial details, I’ll only say that it’s lucky Ben Ripley‘s screenplay stumbles into so fascinating an outcome, because it seems to have been designed mostly as an emotional cop-out.

But it would be nitpicking to question the motives of the writer when the end result is as good a film as this. It’s directed by Duncan Jones, whose previous film, his feature debut, was another impressive piece of sci-fi storytelling – Moon – and between that film and this one makes me long for the early retirement of genre hacks like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich. As in Moon, this film reveals itself to us one layer at a time, producing strong emotional, technological, and even existential surprises.

The plot was thoroughly established by the trailers and commercials – maybe too thoroughly, making me wonder how the film would play to completely virgin eyes. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an Air Force pilot sent back in time to relive the last eight minutes on a Chicago commuter train destroyed in a terrorist attack. He must experience those eight minutes over and over again until he identifies the bomber. Directing him are the inventor of the space-time technology, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), and Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). That is all I will describe of the plot, because the unfolding of the story is half its pleasure.

I will say that Jones, whose earlier film trapped us in an isolated lunar station with Sam Rockwell, continues to demonstrate considerable skill at generating excitement in limited spaces. All the action of Source Code takes place either inside a bilevel train car, in Colter’s claustrophobic time-bending capsule, or in the tightly enclosed office from which he gets his orders. The relationship between these three spaces, which seem simple and clear at first, are revealed to be something quite different, and both the writer and director gradually open our eyes to new understandings of the world the story occupies.

Though Gyllenhaal plays the hero and Michelle Monaghan plays his love interest aboard the train, I think it is Farmiga, as the source-code liaison, whose performance in large part makes the film. On paper, Captain Goodwin is a thankless role, delivering exposition and advancing the plot, but the actress plays nuances beyond her dialogue, expressing professionalism, reluctance, affection, and doubt with subtle gestures, but avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality. Credit is due to Jones as well, who strikes the same balance throughout the film, including a subplot about Colter’s estrangement from his father that gives the character additional emotional weight without being mawkish. Jones never overplays his hand, and by the end we realize he was holding more cards than we thought.