Strangers on a Train: Source Code

Duncan Jones’ second film is an intelligent slice of sci-fi that beats the pants off other recent high-minded efforts (Inception, and particularly The Adjustment Bureau). However, unlike his spectacular début Moon, Jones didn’t write this one, and it shows: the script here is by Ben Ripley, who counts Species III among a range of middling entries on his CV.

Doe-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal—does he have any facial expression at his disposal other than “stunned goldfish”?—plays Captain Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot recruited for the titular top-secret military programme. He wakes up dazed and confused on a train (opposite Michelle Monaghan, whom he doesn’t recognise but would quite like to pash) bound for Chicago. He doesn’t know who he is, and when he looks in the mirror, school teacher Sean Fentress stares quizzically back at him; he’s in the body of another person. Eight minutes later, the train blows up.

Once again Stevens finds himself discombobulated, only now he’s suspended in an ominous-looking hermetically sealed geodesic dome and hooked up to an array of machines and screens—with Vera Farmiga at the other end of one, asking him questions to re-jig his memory and remind him of his true identity. He’s been tasked with working out who’s trying to bomb the train (and apparently plant a larger thermonuclear dirty-bomb downtown). Through a dizzying, intentionally impenetrable and unexplained combination of parabolic calculus and quantum physics, the eight minutes replay over and over as he re-enters Fentress’ body/consciousness until he finds the villain. Helped by Paul Hirsch’s superlative editing, the film’s pacing is sharp and focussed right to the end of its 93 minutes.

Gyllenhaal, despite his seemingly fixed worrisome expression, handles the lead role pretty well; Farmiga adds yet another solid performance to her catalogue, and Monaghan is definitely more than simply the “pretty face” the character might have become in the hands of a less capable director. The one actor who doesn’t quite fit is Jeffrey Wright. As director of the ‘Source Code’ programme, he hobbles around on a cane and sticks out like a sore thumb with his thespian over-enunciation: the way he says “the source code” is kind of like how James Earl Jones as Darth Vader over-enunciates the word “power” in Star Wars, but way more unintentionally hilarious. It’s like he got lost on the way to auditioning for a Shakespeare adaptation on an adjacent set. Elsewhere, a cameo by Russell Peters affords the stand-up comedian far too much screen real estate—and far too many dumb lines of dialogue.

Chris Bacon’s score, while largely generically dull, occasionally shines with some moments of Hermmannian brilliance, adding to the suspense-filled vibe Jones has tried to aim for. Overall the film is more than just passable—Jones even manages to carry across some of the claustrophobic feeling (cribbed from ’70s sci-fi flicks like Silent Running) that colored Moon—and stands out as one of the more intelligent, thought-provoking pieces of cinematic science fiction in recent memory.

Source Code is in cinemas now.