I can already see it at some virtual movie-revival house of the future: a “what-if?” double feature that teams “Limitless” and “Source Code” and points out that both films came out within a couple of weeks of each other in the same year.
The similarities don’t stop there. Both feature good-looking young actors – Bradley Cooper in “Limitless,” Jake Gyllenhaal in “Source Code” – who stumble into something much bigger than themselves and have to hang on for dear life if they want to survive.
But where “Limitless” posited a pharmaceutical that allowed the user to be all that he could be, “Source Code” is a time-travel thriller that spends a lot of time arguing against its being a time-travel movie.
The film’s central gimmick – that scientists have found a way to send someone back in time to the point eight-minutes before a certain individual dies, into that individual’s mind – is clever. And it makes a certain kind of “Groundhog Day” sense.
Gyllenhaal plays Capt. Colter Stevens, a soldier who served in Iraq who wakes up on a commuter train to Chicago. He can’t remember how he got there, he doesn’t know the woman sitting across from him (Michelle Monaghan), though she seems to know him, and he can’t figure out why, when he looks in a restroom mirror, he sees someone else’s face. And then the train explodes …
… and he comes to in some sort of flight-simulator capsule, or so it seems. He can hear voices talking military-computer jargon, trying to get his attention. Eventually, he finds out that he’s part of a desperate experiment.
Just back from fighting in Iraq, he’s somehow a perfect match for that guy on the train. Somehow, the military egghead in charge (Jeffrey Wright) has figured out how to insert Colter’s mind into the man’s brain – for the final eight minutes of the guy’s life.
And that’s his mission: To keep going back into the guy’s brain, in order to figure out who on the train set the bomb – and what he’s done with the dirty bomb he also plans to set off this same day. The catch: The train bombing happened earlier that morning and can’t be prevented, but Colter can affect the future by finding the bomber and bringing back that information.
Except that, as Colter makes his repeated leaps into the past, he discovers that he can change the events he’s experiencing. Does that mean he’s changing the past?
What’s the science here? It’s rattled off at breakneck speed by Vera Farmiga, the military liaison to Wright, who helms the headset that stays in touch with Colter in his remote location. Something about electrical impulses in the brain continuing after death – and figuring out how to transmit a person with similar receptors into the other man’s mind, using those impulses.
Put it this way: It’s double-talk about some theory that no one is going to be proving anytime soon. But it quickly becomes beside the point in this rapid-fire thriller.
Instead, director Duncan Jones (“Moon”) relies on momentum to keep you hooked on a plot that loops back on itself like a Moebius strip. You get hints that something else is going on – or perhaps it’s already happened – with flashes of images of things the audience hasn’t seen but which tickled Colter with a sense of déjà vu.
Don’t think about it too much. Like “Limitless,” “Source Code” doesn’t bear up under intense scrutiny – it’s a thrill ride that goes a little gooey at the end, as questions of morality and mortality come into play.
Instead, enjoy the blend of helplessness and derring-do that Gyllenhaal brings to a man trying to understand an impossible situation even as he has to charge forward and complete his mission. Savor the twinkle that Monaghan brings to a thanklessly ancillary role. Relish the chance to see a couple of engagingly spikey pros like Farmiga and Wright go at each other.
I’m still not quite sure I understand just what it is that the term “source code” refers to. But that didn’t keep me from hopping aboard and having a good time with “Source Code.”