Director Duncan Jones announced his filmmaking arrival in 2009 with Moon, a simultaneously modest and ambitious sci-fi drama featuring Sam Rockwell in a brilliant performance(s) as a man stationed alone on the titular satellite and whose situation was not entirely what it seemed to be.
Source Code, Jones' sophomore effort, shares many thematic elements with Moon: it's sci-fi, revolves around a man on a mission, and has a revelatory twist. And despite a major increase in budget (a modest for Hollywood $32M, up from Moon's reported $5M), Jones, working from a screenplay by Ben Ripley, has managed to keep his wits about him; smarts thankfully working alongside thrills rather than sacrificed to them.
That's not to say that Source Code doesn't operate under its own internal logic. Set in the present day, or what may be the near future, a department within the US government has developed a new technology – the Source Code – which allows them to manipulate the time-space continuum but only for eight minutes at a time. It's the perfect device for accessing the moments before a major disaster, such as it is here with a terrorist bombing of a commuter train bound for Chicago, and retrieving valuable intel for capturing the perpetrators.
But not preventing the disaster. The Source Code is not a time machine and events which take place within each eight minute 'visit' to the past can not and will not prevent the disaster from occurring. That's the harsh lesson learnt by Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) when he wakes in the body of one of the doomed commuters. Under the direction of Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), Stevens is charged with locating the bomb and determining who aboard the train planted it, a mission complicated somewhat by fellow commuter, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), the hitherto platonic friend of the school teacher Stevens happens to be inhabiting.
Okay, so the science is, to quote Ebert, preposterous but for the most part – and for fans of Doctor Who et al – it works. You can pick holes in the logic and the plot after the credits roll, but while you're on that train with Gyllenhaal, you're quite happy to go along for the ride.
What doesn't work is the ending. I'm not sure if Ripley originally wrote it that way or if the studio stepped in and demanded a more 'up' Hollywood ending, but what we get seems more like a concession to 'feel good' rather than a natural fit.
Thankfully, this doesn't derail Source Code or undo Jones' good work up until that point. As was the case with Moon, Jones raises questions about humanity and what it means to be human. He also questions advances in technology, asking whether the ends justify the means. Does having the ability to do something necessarily mean you should?
Duncan Jones certainly knows how to make a movie, and should continue to do so.