Source Code: Sci-Fi Thriller-Actioner, Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga

Two appealing actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga, elevate “Source Code,” a sci-fi thriller-actioner way above its narrative and dramatic shortcomings.

The two stars, and a good supporting cast, are guided by the British director Duncan Jones, who two years ago made an impression with his cerebral sci-fi “Moon.”  He is now making his Hollywood debut with a film that has a bigger budget, stars, special effects—and some compromises too (see below).

World-premiering at the South by Southwest Film Fest (In Austin, Texas), “Source Code” will be released by Summit on April 1.

For better or worse, while “Source Code” looks like a polished mainstream Hollywood in terms of production values, its chief tale and narrative structure are decidedly not.

I am not sure how long “Source Code” has been in the working, but it certainly belongs to the same universe as that of Chris Nolan’s “Inception,” and more recently George Nolfi’s “Adjustment Bureau.”  Though different, all three films are characterized by higher intellectual ambition than is the norm, intricate plotting (that some viewers find convoluted and illogical), and a strong desire to break down, violate, and reinvent the conventions of more traditional movie genres.

The two aforementioned films are relevant in understanding the text and the context of “Source Code.” Like them, the new movie creates its own reality, one which contains real as well as surreal elements.

As scripted by Ben Ripley (“Species III”), the new film bears some resemblance to “Minority Report,” which was based on a story by the late and great sci-fi writer Philip Dick, whose work also served as the inspiration for “Adjustment Bureau,” another sci-fi-thriller, which tries to do too much and is dramatically flawed.

Though decidedly not a comedy, thematically, “Source Code” takes the central premise of the immensely likable Bill Murray vehicle “Groundhog Day” and applies it to the genre of the action- thriller.  In other words, the narrative is based on repetition of ideas, characters, and images–but by design. (see below).

Trying to ground its narrative in a more immediate political context that will make the story timelier, “Source Code” revolves around a protagonist who was a soldier in Afghanistan.

The first reel is extremely intriguing in its set-up.  Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal), a decorated soldier who was a helicopter pilot on a combat mission in Afghanistan, inexplicably wakes up one day in the body of another man.

Confused and bewildered, Colter soon finds out that he is just one element in a larger agency plot—he is part of a dangerous mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train.

Though the program is run by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), Colter’s main contact person and most of his communication is with Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga).  Predictably, the two officials offer Colter only basic (minimal) information about his mission or their experiment.

Gradually, Colter learns that he is a crucial subject of a government experiment called the “Source Code,” a program that enables him to crossover into the identity of another man in the last 8 minutes of his life. In his case, Colter keeps going back, reliving the final 8 minutes of the life of a schoolteacher named Sean Fentress.

Time and again, Colter is sent to the commuter train, where he relives the incident over and over again, but each time with new details and encounters.

The first time Colter is aboard the commuter train, the attractive woman sitting across from him introduces herself as Christina (Michelle Monaghan) and calls him Sean Fentress.   How come she knows his name; he has never met her before.

Shortly thereafter, the train goes up in flames, killing all the passengers aboard, including Christina and Colter (or is it Sean?).  Colter then wakes up again, this time inside a small metallic chamber, which creates a sense of claustrophobia (last experience by Ryan Reynolds).

Upping the ante, the second half of the tale deals with another target, much larger than the first one, which threatens to kill millions in an extremely densely populated area, Downtown Chicago.

For a while, you go with the flow of the narrative, as each time Colter returns to the train, we discover (with him) new clues through the various interactions he has, clues that needs to be put together in some kind of a coherent, more logical plotting.

It’s not giving away too much to say that there is no suspense of whether or not Colter will solve the mystery, identify the mad bomber, and prevent the next attack.  The tension and suspense reside in how exactly he would accomplish his task, how long it would take him, and what risks and dangers he would face along the way.

I have to admit that, for a while, the director and his team of cinematographer and production designer have succeeded in creating a mood of paranoia, a sense of dread.  They never let us forget that Colter is assigned with the prevention of a massive terrorist attack that’s bound to happen.

“Source Code” suffers from some major weaknesses.    While the repetition and tediousness is inherent in the narrative structure, a case could be made for a smaller number of times in which Colter is sent back to the train.

Like other recent films (“Inception” comes to mind), the movie has no rules or limitations—everything seems possible in such a context.

In terms of Ben Ripley’s writing, the roles of Colleen and especially Dr. Rutledge, are vastly underwritten.  Jeffrey Wright, who’s a brilliant performer, is truly wasted here in a minor, vague role that any actor could play.

Then there is the intimation of romance between Colter and Colleen, probably for the sake of making the movie more commercial and more mainstream. While at first their conversations are brief and matter-of fact, later in the game, they begin to ask personal questions and get closer to each other.

I don’t think Vera Farmiga has ever given a bad or weak performance.  In this picture, playing a secondary role, she still registers strongly with her graceful presence (those blue eyes) and charisma.

But the movie really belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal, who has been circling around major stardom for a long time, and here carries the entire film on his shoulders.  Gyllenhaal’s skeptics will be surprised by his dominant, warm, and compelling performance, considering the limitations (both dramatic and physical) imposed on him by the story’s setting and plot.

Why Groundhog Day?

I highly recommend that you watch this charming, immensely enjoyable fable-comedy, made by Harold Ramis in 1993, in which Bill Murray (in top form), plays a confirmed cynic, who finds himself stuck in the same 24-hour time frame, over and over again, during which he learns some basic life lessons.