Tip your hat to Duncan Jones; he hasn't let the success of his first feature - the moody Sam Rockwell-starring sci-fi pic Moon - get to him, nor the unimaginable shadow cast by being David Bowie's son. Source Code, a perfectly respectable sophomore effort, distinguishes Jones as one of the few "art house" directors to make a snug transition to more mainstream fare, all the more impressive given the recent failures of far more acclaimed directors setting their sights on Hollywood (see: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's dud The Tourist). The opening credits of Source Code, backed by a cacophonous symphony not unlike the work of Bernard Herrmann, instantly reminds one of Hitchcock, and yes, in many ways, this is very much a film the Master might have made if he read more Arthur C. Clarke and ever got to see Inception. That's not to label the film as derivative, though; instead, it shares the same DNA as Nolan's delirious masterwork, a pop-culture comprimise between heady themes and popcorn execution in the best sense possible. Touted as Groundhog Day mated with Speed, Source Code's stellar premise plays out like a video game with no possibility of victory, like those coin-op games in arcades with levels that increase in difficulty exponentially. Jake Gyllenhaal is Captain Colter Stevens, a Marine pilot whose consciousness is transported into the body of Sean Fentress, a passenger aboard a train which then explodes when a bomb detonates on board. A second attack - a dirty bomb unleashed upon a major city - is imminent, and Stevens has just a few hours to find the bomber and prevent the next threat. The mysterious titular technology allows Stevens to essentially relive the last 8 minutes of Fentress' life as many times as he wants, each trip bringing him closer to the answers while also raising some difficult personal questions. Following Groundhog Day's success, it would be very difficult to make a film of this nature without recognising the situation's inherent humour, and thankfully Jones never gets carried away enough to forget this. While his film is in many respects a potent meditation on existence and the nature of our universe, it is also unexpectedly warm, funny and most suprisingly of all, emotionally involving. Sustained tension is balanced deftly against the human Murray-McDowell dichotomy, that is, the 8-minute connection forged between Stevens and Fentress' friend, Christina, played with skill by Michelle Monaghan. To say much more is to ruin the film's enormous conceit - Jones plays one game-changing card mid-film, and another at the climax - but rest assured that Source Code satisfies intellectually and, in the area Inception was most lambasted for, emotionally. It isn't perfect, though; the exposition - though ably chewed through by the ever-classy Vera Farmiga (as an officer heading up the operation), and Jeffrey Wright (as her superior) - has its moments of creaky unease, and the engagement with the physical plausibility of the scenario inconsistently fleets from an Inception-like detatchment to at times almost explaining too much to us. This extends to an ending that is liable to divide audiences, overzealously reaching beyond what likely would have been a more sobering, memorable ending. Still, that clearly isn't the film Jones wanted to make, for Source Code stands among an increasingly cynical genre as peculiarly optimistic, detailing his almost romantic fixation with the notions of fate and destiny with disarming inventiveness. The train crash visual effects are uniformly awful for a film with a $35m budget, but thanks to rock-solid direction and a strong cast - Gyllenhaal is at his best in a while, proving himself a rare actor able to perform well in pretty much every genre now - it was never likely do to less than impress. With a stronger ending Source Code could have been great; as it stands, it's still a thrilling entertainment destined for cult status. Source Code is released in the U.K. and U.S. on April 1st.
Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.