| The most exciting film of 2011 begins with a great opening segment. A 30-year-old man with a military buzz cut (Jake Gyllenhaal from “Love and Other Drugs,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Brokeback Mountain”) wakes up on a commuter train bound for Chicago. He doesn’t know where, or indeed who, he is.
A pretty female passenger (Michelle Monaghan from “Eagle Eye, “Mission: Impossible III” and “Gone Baby Gone”) sits across from him. He freaks her out when he acts strangely. He sees a face he doesn’t recognize in the lavatory mirror. After eight minutes, there is an explosion.
He now finds himself strapped to a pilot’s seat in a tiny capsule talking to a woman dressed in a military uniform (Vera Farmiga from “Up in the Air” and “The Departed”) on a video screen. Her technobabble makes everything more confusing.
This amnesiac is Army Capt. Colter Stevens, a decorated helicopter pilot whose last assignment was in Afghanistan. He is part of a government experiment called the “Source Code” that uses “time reassignment” technology. It enables his consciousness to cross into another person’s body and revisit the last eight minutes of the host’s life.
Stevens is being directed by Goodwin (Farmiga) to find the bomb and the bomber responsible for blowing up the train. She tells him lives are at stake because this was just the first of a series of terrorist attacks. A second strike targeting millions is imminent in downtown Chicago.
The beautiful, kind and painfully honest fellow commuter is Christina Warren. She knows Stevens as Sean Fentress, an English teacher. Christina converses with him on a daily basis and has been secretly hoping he would ask her out for coffee sometime.
The other key figure in this action adventure is Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright from “Quantum of Solace,” “Syriana” and “Cadillac Records”), the sinister designer of the project, which is based on his scientific theories regarding short-term memory storage and the brain’s afterglow charge after death. He is anxious to get additional government funding once he can show advantageous tactical results from this model program.
The movie follows a “binary pattern,” switching between the capsule in supposedly real time and Stevens’ repeated attempts to solve the train bombing within the time constraints of the eight-minute loops. There are about nine separate segments where Stevens is back on the train and slightly different variations occur that bring unexpected twists and turns.
This sci-fi fantasy adventure is a terrific follow-up for director Duncan Jones (“Moon”). He executes to perfection a genius script written by Ben Ripley. Ripley puts a fresh, original spin on the time-travel detective mystery. There is a lot more here than meets the eye. The movie parcels out information in small bits and pieces. The viewer initially concentrates on the bomb and the bomber, but over time attention shifts to why Stevens has been selected as a guinea pig.
Ardent moviegoers will recognize elements from “Groundhog Day,” “Avatar,” “Déjà Vu,” “The Matrix” and “Somewhere in Time.” The movie delves deeply into the complexity of the main characters. The possibility of time forks and parallel universes is handled in a thought-provoking way. The terrorist subplot is merely a device for the movie’s main message of cherishing life and making every second count.
Gyllenhaal has a screen charisma that gives him instant credibility. You get behind his character’s efforts and pull for him to succeed. Monaghan plays an innocent sweetheart that gets swept up in this nightmare. You can’t help falling in love with her genuine girl-next-door character. Farmiga and Wright seem to be in a bureaucratic tug of war, playing a variation on the good cop vs. bad cop.
Besides the sure-handed directing, masterful script and superb acting, the movie’s other strengths include stupendous visual effects, outstanding cinematography, the suspense-heightening musical score and eye-appealing scenery of the Chicago skyline and Millennium Park. The movie gets better as it goes along, never wearing out its welcome in a briskly paced running time of 93 minutes. The movie’s satisfying resolution will have you coming back for exhilarating second helpings. Why can’t all sci-fi fantasies be this much fun?
This brilliant entertainment gem ironically opens on April Fools’ Day. It is no joke when I say that it goes right to the top of my list of the best movies of 2011.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"