Along with the whole "killing Hitler" thing, anything resembling time travel runs into the old paradox problem.
Like, if you went back in time and killed your own grandpa before you were born, does that mean you wouldn't have had to clean all the old copies of Bobby Socks Aficionado out of his house when he died originally? Or would that cause you to cease to exist, meaning you couldn't have killed him, meaning you exist after all, meaning oh screw it, let's go watch The Drying of the Paint: The Epic Miniseries instead?
Creators of time-travel stories basically have two choices: make up an arbitrary rule, such as timelines can only be changed once, or they can throw their hands in the air like they just don't care about the contradictory mechanics of chronological distortion. The sci-fi thriller Source Code takes the former route, nimbly dodging the usual time-related brain-knotters.
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Soldier Jake Gyllenhaal wakes up on a train with another man's face. Minutes later, the train explodes. He comes to in a small capsule. His commander Vera Farmiga fills him in: earlier that day, a terrorist blew up a train in Chicago. They believe a dirty bomb will be unleashed on the city this afternoon.
Gyllenhaal is part of a new project that can see into the past. They can't undo what happened on the train, but if he can find the bomber, they can head off an attack that could kill millions.
Director Duncan Jones debuted last year with Moon, a creepy little flick that probably had too many talking computers in it (one) to get it the Academy nominations it deserved. If you like science fiction movies, you should stop reading this now — seriously, throw your computer out the window and into the kiddie pool, unless you use Netflix and need to add Moon to your queue first, which I probably should have said before the defenestration advice.
It's always exciting to see a first-time director knock it out of the park, but to put it frankly, their followup efforts often suck. This is usually in very interesting, talented forms of suck, but that only goes so far to alleviate the overall suckitude.
Jones does not have this problem. He parcels out the details of Gyllenhaal's situation with easy skill, building a mystery without relying on the unnecessary withholding of information. Some unknown part of the credit here undoubtedly belongs with writer Ben Ripley. The author of esteemed works such as Species 3 and Species: The Awakening, Ripley's either suddenly gotten good or been body-snatched by the sober ghost of Philip K. Dick, because Source Code is a crafty, well-plotted thriller.
With a strong cast, too. Gyllenhaal is great as a soldier who's equal parts confused, cocky and frustrated. Why do I keep forgetting how talented he is? Maybe he's just a little too good, like Jeff Bridges, and he'll have to wait to be as respected as he deserves until middle age, when he can put on some pajamas and swear at John Goodman a lot. Or maybe I forget because he does junk like Prince of Persia.
Whatever the case, he's not alone in his strong performance. Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, and Michelle Monaghan do quality work, too. Which reminds me: Source Code was marketed with a heavy Gyllenhaal-Monaghan romance angle, sort of like Groundhog's Day meets...I dunno, The Train That Couldn't Stop Blowing Up. But that's only one dimension of Ripley's story. Combined with Jones' smart pacing and instincts about how to quietly shock the viewer, Source Code is the second success in what's shaping up to be a hell of a career.
* Contact Ed Robertson at email@example.com. His fiction is available on Kindle through Amazon.