Film being a linear medium, unfolding in time, its essential journey is one that moves from point A to point Z. Count Source Code as part of a refreshing spate of films that proudly and cleverly take a temporal-linear road less traveled, resulting in a mind-twisting sideways-alphabet experience. From the outset, we’re as confused as our bedraggled hero (Jake Gyllenhaal) in scene one, as he finds himself waking up as a stranger on a strange train. Gradually, and teasingly, the complex backstory is revealed, until we accept the fact of a soldier’s freakish medical fate, synched up with the afterglow of a dead man, on a cosmic crime-solving mission.
And why not? Inception trained us to surrender to the machinations of cinematic puzzle-makers, when they can pull it off. And mostly they do here. Like a protracted—yet focused—narrative out of The Twilight Zone, Source Code’s story involves a bizarre mind-meld and tweaked time and consciousness. On some level, the film is an odd-bird variation on the “whodunit” structure, but one in which our protagonist repeatedly revisits the scene of the crime—an explosion on a Chicago commuter train—in the past tense. The film’s structure, based on two locations, finds him ensconced in a claustrophobic capsule and communicating with his remote officer-in-charge (Vera Farmiga), in eight-minute segments of what the project leader calls “time realignment.”
Director Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s son and the man behind Moon, keeps a close watch on the unique machinery driving Source Code. He builds our empathetic connection to the fate of the central character (and his wannabe love interest, played by Michelle Monaghan), while also messing with the storytelling and nature of real-time perception.
Somehow, though, the film’s careful balance of narrative audacity and emotional warmth goes askew toward the end, as the apparent urge to give a tidy wrap-up to an inherently messy storyline gives in to Hollywood-ized impulses. It doesn’t appear to have the courage of its convictions, surrendering sci-fi cred to the mores of the multiplex. Still, Source Code manages to deviate from filmic norms in delicious ways. Rod Serling would approve.