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‘Source Code’ a clever and intense sci-fi thriller

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Director Duncan Jones makes "Source Code" a smart thriller. Photo courtesy via Summit Entertainment.

In 2009, director Duncan Jones released his first film called “Moon.” It was a small, low-budget science fiction film, but its intriguing plot and clever introspective dialogue made it a cult classic and, according to many fans and critics, a small masterpiece.

As usual in the industry, the exciting new director has moved on to bigger projects, his most recent being “Source Code,” a science fiction mystery starring Jake Gyllenhaal released last Friday. Luckily for audiences, Jones hasn’t lost his directorial touch, resulting in something rare these days: a Hollywood thriller with a brain.

The film follows a man named Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) who wakes up on a train not knowing how he got there, who the charming young woman (Michelle Monaghan) beside him is, or why he looks like a completely different person by the name of Sean Fentress. Before he can answer any of these questions, the train is bombed, and Stevens wakes up in a strange mechanical pod.

It turns out he has been selected as a participant in the Source Code project, a tactic that can place Stevens’ mind in the last eight minutes of Fentress’ life.

Within those eight minutes, repeated over and over a la “Groundhog Day,” Stevens must find the bomb planted on the train in order to prevent a larger attack in the future. Unfortunately, every time he goes back he also starts to develop feelings for his fellow passenger, Christina Warren, and wants to make minor changes to the event, which is not permitted by his military superiors.

As if this plotline didn’t sound potentially terrible enough, there’s an added danger to the mix: director Jones is the son of David Bowie, a heritage which often overshadows his artistic achievements.

But unlike the offspring of many celebrities, Jones has serious talent of his own, and “Source Code” proves it. His pacing throughout the film is top notch, maintaining the intensity of its many mysteries but also leaving room for some truly emotional moments with the characters. It’s a credit to the director that he manages to make the film consistently thrilling despite the fact the audience knows how every train ride is going to end.

Some of that credit, though, must also go to the writer, Ben Ripley. Admittedly, there are problems with the script, including some unnatural sounding dialogue and an ending that, frankly, doesn’t make sense. These are small missteps, however, when compared to the riveting plot.

Many movies before, such as 2008’s “Vantage Point,” have attempted to make an entertaining film out of multiple takes on the same experience. For the most part, though, they have spectacularly failed because an audience can only watch the same thing happen so many times.

“Source Code” somehow avoids that pitfall by making each journey onto the train new. Unique details start to emerge each time, and though interactions may start the same, they never continue exactly the same way. In addition, Gyllenhaal’s character is not only trying to find the bomb, but also attempting to discover how he got into the Source Code project altogether, adding new intrigue to each ride.

Gyllenhaal himself is another surprising boost to the film. The actor has run into a bit of a rough stretch lately, having recently starred in such snore-inducing classics as “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” Here, however, the actor seems comfortable and really mines the character for the various emotions he’s going through.

Unfortunately, the good Gyllenhaal performance comes with an obnoxious one from Jeffrey Wright. The Tony award-winning actor plays the chief scientist behind the Source Code project, and he seems to be trying way too hard to be a crotchety old scientist. Excessive vocal growls do not a performance make.

Once again, that is a minor complaint in a movie that gets so many major elements right. “Source Code” is a slick and smart Hollywood thriller that proves that Jones has many more “Golden Years” ahead of him.

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