It takes a lot to impress a science-fiction fan these days. Truly great sci-fi films are few and far between, which allows the hardcore genre fanatic to A) catch up on all the classics, and B) re-watch (and re-watch) the best of the best. Plus it's just so damn hard to come up with a NEW idea in the science-fiction arena; it's tough to blame us when something fresh and exciting comes along. Take Duncan Jones' 'Moon,' for example, which hit the shelves last year and became sort of an "instant classic" to a lot of genre folks (including me). And the reason so many of us took to 'Moon' so quickly is because ... it's fresh. It's novel. It's original, challenging, fun, and "deep" all at the same time.
Duncan Jones' sophomore effort, 'Source Code,' is not nearly as original as his first film, but it is the next best thing to unique: it's two or three familiar ideas tossed into a blender, whipped into a tasty concoction, and delivered with a great deal of style and confidence. Astute devotees of the realm of speculative fiction will no doubt recognize a few dashes of Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys,' the slightly goofy 'The Butterfly Effect,' and even Harold Ramis' 'Groundhog Day' within Ben Ripley's 'Source Code' screenplay, but it's the tight, slick, and efficient way the disparate elements are drawn together that make the script such a cool surprise. (Congrats to Mr. Ripley, who cut his teeth on 'Species 3' and 'Species 4' before diving into the deeper end of the sci-fi pool.) The plot is this: a young man awakens on a train, staring at a beautiful woman, confused out of his mind. He slowly comes to realize that he's part of a much larger design. Turns out there's a bomb on the train, and our hero is the only one who can (bear with me here) leap forward in time in order to receive vague but crucial instructions on how to prevent the bomb from exploding. Oh, and he only gets eight minutes at a time to piece the puzzle together. To say much more would be a trip into spoiler territory, plus this is already one of the most difficult plot synopses I've ever written.
A high-end, feature-length 'Twilight Zone' concept, bolstered by two excellent performances (Jake Gyllenhaal and the luminous Michelle Monaghan) and presented in a crisp 90-minute package, 'Source Code' is precisely the sort of clever-yet-accessible sci-fi thriller we need more of. The concept has a nifty hook, the performances sell the human side of the story with effortless ease, and Jones does a superlative job of ratcheting up the tension en route to a disarmingly satisfying finale.
As with most examples of quality science fiction, 'Source Code' is logically focused on strange technology, misplaced memories, and all sorts of high-minded concepts, but you always need a little focus on the human side of the equation. Without a few characters worth caring about, no amount of train explosions will make a real impact. Jones, Ripley, Gyllenhaal, and (especially) Ms. Monaghan do a fine job of offering a worthwhile dash of humanity amidst all the sci-fi craziness. (Vera Farmiga, as a helpful voice from our hero's future, also steals a few scenes of her own, but that's hardly a new phenomenon.)
We've had a fine streak of enjoyably varied science fiction flicks lately, from the surprisingly good 'The Adjustment Bureau' and the admirably insane 'Battle Los Angeles' (next week's 'Limitless' is also pretty damn cool), and 'Source Code' looks to continue that streak. It's hard to say how much of a bankable audience is still out there for "smaller" sci-fi flicks like 'Source Code,' but speaking as only one massive fan of the genre, I'm very pleased that the studios still throw some money at projects like this one.