In "Source Code," the new thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal, "Groundhog Day" goes metaphysical. Some people, I know, will argue that "Groundhog Day" was already metaphysical. Perhaps, but compared with "Source Code," it's "Caddyshack."
We first see Gyllenhaal waking up from a nap on a commuter train bound for Chicago. Although his character knows himself as Army Capt. Colter Stevens, he is addressed as "Sean" by a young woman, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who appears to be his girlfriend. Confused, he stands before the men's room mirror and sees another man's reflection. Then the train explodes, killing everybody on board.
Except, apparently, Colter, whom we next see inside a cement-block privation cell. A video screen connects him to the big, interrogatory faces of Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), military-scientific analysts who are utilizing Colter – who is either alive, dead, or "dead" – for a top-secret Army experiment in which he is made to repeatedly relive the last eight minutes in the life of the train commuter in order to uncover the bomber who has also threatened to detonate downtown Chicago.
All this is accomplished through what Rutledge describes as a "parabolic calculus" in which a person's consciousness is integrated into the "afterglow" of another man's dead brain cells – or something like that. At one point spiky-tempered Rutledge tells Colter "it would take weeks to explain." I believe him.
What it all boils down to is that we, along with Colter, are continually reliving the run-up to the bombing, as he attempts each time to foil the plot and unmask the bomber. In doing so, Colter grows increasingly attached to his train mates, especially Christina. His rescue mission becomes personal.
Director Duncan Jones is highly regarded for "Moon," a deep-think sci-fi fantasia that left me cold (maybe because it featured Sam Rockwell in multiple roles, and one Rockwell is plenty for me). "Source Code," written by Ben Ripley, is better, if only because the "Groundhog Day" structure is innately compelling and because Gyllenhaal brings to it his ardent exuberance. You can believe Colter would go to extraordinary lengths to save his train mates even though he's not at all clear what portends. His perpetual races against the clock have a frantic pathos.
There is a timely and primal appeal to the film's notion of turning back the clock on a terrorist attack in order to foil it. "Source Code" is the most explicit of a series of movies over the past year or so featuring protagonists with altered consciousnesses in altered, or alternate, universes. Some of these films, like "The Adjustment Bureau" or "Limitless," take place in settings that, from a global terror standpoint, are relatively benign. Others, like "Inception" and, to a greater degree, "Avatar," are more keyed to the bellicosity of the moment. But all, none more so than "Source Code," express a deep desire to escape the post-9/11 "reality" we've been handed and create another. Narcissistic jags posing as metaphysical conundrums, these movies are saying that you can change the world by changing your brain. Not happy with the mind you've got? You can perform a bit of parabolic calculus and insert yours into another's. Or swill a pill and reboot your own.
Pulp movies often nakedly reflect the zeitgeist. In the 1950s, films like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" were clear expressions of cold war anxieties. Now we're experiencing a similar phenomenon. Years – months? – hence I expect there will be an avalanche of PhD theses focusing on these mumbo-jumbo mind-meld melodramas. In the meantime you can pick up your BA at the multiplex today. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some violence including disturbing images, and for language.)