In 2009, director Duncan Jones announced his formidable presence with a debut feature, Moon, that ranked as one of that year's best films. Moon, a back-to-the-basics, low-budget sci-fi puzzler was about an isolated man, toiling away on the Earth's moon for years at a time mining for an alternate energy source, who comes into contact with his replacement - himself. Its message was as bleak as star Sam Rockwell's tired eyes and as spare as its color palette: We live alone, we die alone and the work we do in between is all filler for faceless corporations who've long forgotten about who we are as people.
For his follow-up, Jones has wisely gone in the opposite direction. Source Code, while very much rooted in science fiction, is a willfully optimistic, very nearly sentimental picture. It opens with some of the most beautiful aerial shots I've seen in recent years, sweeping over Chicago's industrial, rural and urban areas in glittering, RED-camera definition. It finds a train on which our star, Jake Gyllenhaal, has just woken and doesn't know who he is (or, more specifically, what body he seems to have inhabited) or what he's doing there. A bomb goes off, killing every passenger onboard, including himself. Gyllenhaal's Capt. Colter Stevens wakes up yet again, this time in his own body, which is hooked up to a sort of virtual reality device in a dank, leaking tank at an undisclosed location.
Eventually, he learns that he's in the "source code," a military program that allows Stevens to be thrown into the body of one of the train's passengers minutes before the explosion in order to identify the person responsible for the bomb. He can do this as many times as he needs, but there's a ticking clock: The bomber, in real time, is heading for his next target, and it looks to be an entire city. (If echoes of Quantum Leap are humming in your ear, the filmmakers are right there with you: There's a killer nod to the show that you may not notice until the end credits.) When Stevens becomes infatuated with one of the passengers (Michelle Monaghan), his inner G.I. Joe turns on.
Here is a film so packed with ideas in such little time that it could easily over- whelm. Not that the ideas are particularly innovative, but Jones turns the plot screws over and over, examining Stevens' dilemma - and there's much more to it than described above - from every conceivable angle. What Jones lands on, finally, is a kind of ghostly love story: Monaghan's character is irreversibly dead in real time, and it's made clear that nothing can change that. The train has already detonated. It's done. So Stevens is searching for meaning within the vapor trails of these peoples' lives.
If this were Moon, it would be a fruitless search, and I expect that some of Jones' devotees will take exception to his newfound romanticism. And granted, Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley must move mountains to craft a happy ending when the outcome is determined from the opening minutes, but watching them and Stevens try is one of the great pleasures I've had at the movies this year. Gyllenhaal's transition into the modern-day Tom Cruise - a svelte, atypically handsome action star with a toothy smile, able to handle big romance and big guns alike - is going nicely. He's become an actor I can't wait to sit and watch. And Jones has proven that he's able to balance big-budget spectacle with thoughtful emotion without getting himself tangled in the mire of plot wormholes.
Source Code sticks to its relatively basic (in sci-fi terms) setup and plays with it gleefully but with maturity, never ignoring its mass-appeal cinematic duties.