A good science fiction movie will let you forget it's sci-fi, focusing on characters, their humanity and their quest. It doesn't matter if they're hurtling through space or time or in what universe they're inhabiting. If the movie gets to you, those genre trappings fall by the wayside.
That happens with "Source Code," an adorably preposterous concept that becomes far less important than the compelling journey these characters take and the sympathetic actors who insist, with their performances, that we come along for the ride.
Jake Gyllenhaal wakes up on a Chicago commuter train, not recognizing the body he inhabits or the very friendly, very familiar woman (Michelle Monaghan) at his side, the one who keeps calling him "Sean."
"You're acting a little strange this morning," she coos, but he's not having it. He is Capt. Colter Stevens. He was in Afghanistan. How did he get here?
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For eight minutes this confusing back and forth goes on. And then - kablooey. The train explodes. And Capt. Colter Stevens wakes up in a communications pod, where he learns that he has spent the last eight minutes of this guy Sean's life in Sean's body, re-living Sean's reality. The military sent him. They want him, as Sean, to help them get the guy who blew up the train, the guy who threatens to blow up a LOT of Chicago with a dirty bomb if they don't find him in a flash.
Vera Farmiga plays the officer who "handles" Colter. He must go back on that train, she tells him, re-living his own version of "Groundhog Day," until he can finger the bomber. He can't change the outcome of the train blast, the head scientist (Jeffrey Wright) lectures him. He can only carry out his mission.
But Capt. Stevens, being the heroic sort, is determined to mess around with this fake reality until he can master it, eight minutes at a time.
Duncan Jones, director of the very fine and very paranoid "Moon," makes this seemingly silly situation work, building tension over 93 minutes, cryptically teasing out details of what's going on, building the audience's memory (Ben Ripley wrote the script) as he builds Colter's. You forget about the set-up and concentrate on outsmarting the conditions Colter must work under, just as Colter himself does.
Like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," Colter learns. Slowly. He makes mistakes. And each time he does, he dies, only to wind up back in that pod where his control officer debriefs him and tries to get him to do her bidding.
"Every second spent explaining this to you puts innocent lives at risk!"
Whatever tricks Jones brings to the table, "Source Code" works because Gyllenhaal, Monaghan and Farmiga will it to life. They make us care, give humanity to the sacrifice and fatalism that Colter must carry in his head and the "just friends" mind-set that Christina (Monaghan) must instantly overcome if she is to believe this crazy story that her friend "Sean" is telling her.
"Source Code" makes you skip past the sci-fi and ponder how you might like to spend your last eight minutes, who or what you'd sacrifice everything for and if you can solve this eight-minute puzzle faster than Capt. Colter Stevens.