When you die, the last eight minutes of your life remain electromagnetically imprinted in your brain. If we could inject someone into that persistent memory, they could solve crimes after the fact. It’s the fascinating premise for director Duncan Jones’ sci-fi thriller Source Code.
The film opens with Air Force chopper pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) in a Chicago commuter train, chatting with Christine (Michelle Monaghan) who clearly knows him. But he has no idea who she is, who he is, where he is and what’s going on — his last memories were of flying a helicopter in Afghanistan. Christine refers to Stevens as “Sean” and says he’s a school teacher. When he looks in a mirror, he’s startled by the unfamiliar face that stares back.
Then the train is ripped apart by a bomb.
Stevens is part of a top-secret military operation called Source Code, and as he learns from his handler Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), he’s going to be sent back to relive the same eight pre-explosion minutes again and again until he can figure out who planted the bomb.
The handwave explanation is that the electromagnetic imprinting is something to do with “quantum physics.” Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the amoral scientist in charge of the Source Code project, explains that the experiences are within the framework of that eight-minute window, but that any changes he makes cannot affect whether people die or not: it’s a parallel universe. Um, whatever.
The most obvious comparisons are with the Denzel Washington film Deja Vu (which also involved a military project to go back in time and find a train bomber, but in New Orleans) and the film Vantage Point (in which an attempted assassination is relived multiple times, but through differing perspectives). Source Code works better than either of these, however, with a more compelling story, more logical premise, and more satisfying ending.
There are some interesting special effects in the film, effects that initially seem like flashbacks, like Stevens diving into the pool of the memories of “Sean,” but pay attention, as there’s much to learn by what he’s seeing as the film unspools.
As Bill Murray explored so thoughtfully in the comedy Groundhog Day, there’s something compelling about the idea that we could go back in time and experience something more than once, trying different actions and seeing how they affect the outcome. The inevitable question of which of those alternative realities is actually our own reality? That’s part of what makes it an interesting subject to explore.