Based on Duncan Jones's first two feature films, Moon and now Source Code, the latter of which had its world premiere Friday night here at SXSW, one could say that Jones has a knack not for putting across breathtakingly original ideas in a breathtakingly original way, but for putting across familiar ideas with enough skill, intelligence, and heart to make the end result seem fresh enough. Moon at first played like basically a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, right down to its white-dominated production design, until it gradually began to stake out its own distinctive thematic and emotional territory. Source Code similarly begins in a manner that suggests it's going to be merely a rehash of films ranging from Groundhog Day to The Manchurian Candidate, but the film eventually develops an identity of its own, thanks in part to Ben Ripley's structurally brilliant script and the committed performances of its cast.
Source Code packs, in dazzlingly virtuosic fashion, two mysteries in one. On one level, the film focuses on a mission to discover the culprit of a train bombing in Chicago that is only the beginning of a larger-scale terrorist attack; the mission involves an experimental technology masterminded by a scientist (Jeffrey Wright) that can send the mind of Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a soldier who was fighting in Afghanistan, into the body of a passenger on that train in the last eight minutes before the explosion occurred. This is where the Groundhog Day connection comes in: Stevens is repeatedly sent into back into those eight minutes in trying to nail down the bomber, and each time out something different happens. But then there's the film's other, more character-driven mystery, as Stevens—whose last memory is of being blown up in Afghanistan—is trying to figure out where he is and how he got drafted to this mission in the first place.
What he eventually discovers about his predicament aligns him closely with the situation in which Sam Bell, the protagonist Sam Rockwell played in Moon, found himself as he neared the end of his three-year tour of duty on the moon. To say more would risk going into spoiler territory; suffice it to say, Stevens similarly discovers himself to be part of a world in which he not only isn't sure what he's experiencing is real, but in which he is essentially at the mercy of forces both human and otherwise far greater and more ruthless than he can initially imagine. Only two films in, Jones seems to be developing consistent thematic concerns, with the palpable sympathy he evinces toward protagonists who find themselves helpless against people and institutions that seem to see no value in human life. And once again, he manages to ground heady scientific, psychological, and philosophical subject matter in a gripping humanist drama, so that his intellectual aspirations don't overwhelm the humanist elements. (In that regard, Ripley's script is deeply impressive in the ways he manages to economically but vividly define his characters.)
The film's only major misstep, really, comes within its final five or so minutes, in a tacked-on, last-minute twist that extends the film past a logical endpoint to try to force in an Inception-style mindfuck of a conclusion. Until then, though, Source Code works quite well as a gripping, emotionally involving and genuinely thought-provoking thriller.
Source Code was the opening-night film at this year's SWSW.