Though I suspect this may be the subject of a future column, let me briefly say here that I may be the only person I know who didn't love Inception. I appreciated the ambition, and the technical skill involved, but the actual viewing experience left me cold. I like my movies to be smart, but I don't like them to feel like a game of Three-Card Monty: if a director is constantly challenging me to figure out how he (or she—but it's usually a he in this scenario) has tricked me, my left brain is going to be so busy with the puzzle that my right brain isn't going to be involved in the emotional flow of the story. Inception had good ideas and brilliant visual effects, but ultimately I didn't care about—or even register—the characters. For me, it was a movie to admire more than love.
I mention it here because I think everything Inception gets wrong, director Duncan Jones' Source Code gets right. Source Code is undoubtedly a smaller picture, both less impressive and less anxious to impress, but for me it's the better for it. Like Inception, and like all good science fiction, it deals seriously with big ideas, putting recognizably human characters in brand new situations that would otherwise be impossible. But unlike Inception, the big idea in Source Code isn't the point; it's just the jumping-off point, a foundation on which to build an entertaining story. In that sense—as well as in more literal ways—a better comparison is Groundhog Day, which had the good sense to spend exactly no time explaining why or how Bill Murry was stuck living the same day over and over again. It didn't bore us with twenty minutes of pseudo-scientific claptrap about the quantum mechanics of Gobbler's Knob, or subject us to some wizened old mystic's Nietzschean theory of Eternal Return to Sonny and Cher: it just presented the premise and got on with the story.
In Source Code, Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) doesn't have a whole day to live over and over—he has eight minutes. Stevens, we learn, is an air force helicopter pilot deployed (when last he knew) to Afghanistan. But as the movie opens, he awakens, to his own surprise, on a Chicago-bound commuter train, in mid-conversation with Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a pretty and charming stranger who seems to know him. But she calls him by another man's name, and he sees another man's face in his own reflection. Eight minutes later, before he can figure any of this out, a bomb explodes, killing everyone on the train—except Stevens, who wakes up somewhere else entirely.
Stevens, we come to find out, is an agent of a military project called The Beleaguered Castle. (Though not explained in the movie, this is a sly reference to a simple but nearly unwinnable solitaire card game, which requires moves to be made in precisely the right order.) His handler, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) explains to him that the train explosion has already happened, but—thanks to the "Source Code," a pseudo-scientific plot device invented by Jeffrey Wright—Stevens' consciousness can been sent into the body of a passenger on the train, for a self-contained eight-minute window before the explosion. His mission is not to change the past—which he's told is impossible—but to identify the bomber in time to prevent a larger explosion that still threatens to destroy Chicago.
And so Stevens is sent back, again and again, to live over those same eight minutes until he gets them right. To give any more of the plot away would be to destroy much of the pleasure of the movie, but Source Code keeps the repeated segments from getting repetitive. By my count Stevens lives those eight minutes at least seven times, but each time he takes a different path; he follows false leads and blind alleys in his search for the bomber, grows more and more enamored of the woman he knows he cannot save, and learns things about his own situation that make his "real" life just as pressing a concern as his mission on the train.
This is a complicated, high-concept scenario, but a clever script by Ben Ripley, and the excellent storytelling of Duncan Jones, keep the story human and keep the confusion to a minimum. This is a film interested in intriguing its audience, but not in making them feel stupid. On the other hand, it's not interested in being stupid, either: there are no slow-motion heroics, no bullet-time shoot-outs, no daring chases atop the moving train. The limited action in Source Code is realistic and refreshingly unfetishized.
Which is not to say it's dull: Source Code is paced, appropriately, within an inch of its life: since every trip to the train has its own built-in time limit, and since there's a real-time apocalypse looming in the real world, the sense of urgency never lets up, and neither we nor Stevens have time to think too much.
None of it would work, of course, without the human element, and in this case Jones is well served by his cast. Gyllenhaal is given precious little time to build a character between the necessarily-rapid plot developments, but he manages to make Stevens both sympathetic and likable. (One shudders to think what this picture would have been like with Nic Cage or Keanu Reeves in the lead. But then, one shudders to think of Nic Cage or Keanu Reeves. As least this one does. [Shudder].)
The supporting cast is even better. Monaghan (who proved in Gone, Baby, Gone that she can carry her own in more substantial roles) is mostly asked to be luminous and adorable here, but she succeeds in spades; it is thanks to her that the eight-minute relationship Christina forms with Stevens is—surprisingly—both believable and sweet. Personally, I found Vera Farmiga's performance in Up in the Air to be a tad overrated, but here she does more with less: her character plays her cards necessarily close to her chest, but Farmiga manages to convey a remarkably complex woman behind the mask. Wright—one of our finest actors—is under-utilized but always a commanding presence.
I said earlier that, for me, good science fiction uses impossible situations to tell new kinds of stories. I don't have a pat definition of great science fiction, but, if I did, Source Code would probably fall short of it. Its ideas, while clever, are ultimately not that big; its characters are sympathetic, but not fully developed; it raises interesting questions, but not essential ones. There's some clumsy dialogue, some ridiculous logic, and a slightly cartoonish terrorist: nobody here thinks they're making Rashomon.
But that's okay: actually, it's kind of a relief. I'd much rather watch Source Code again than subject myself to another viewing of the interminable and self-serious Inception. Sometimes a mid-level success is preferable to a high-level misfire, and in those terms Source Code is a triumph.