There are surprisingly few genuine science-fiction movies. There are plenty of space operas and futuristic fantasies, but real science fiction—where the story revolves around an at least somewhat reasonable progression of technology and the effect it might have upon us—is scarcer than you might think. The first Tron could legitimately be called sci-fi, but last year's Tron: Legacy was just a fantasy film that was honest about the nature of its ogres and dragons. In the past few months we've had Battle: Los Angeles and Skyline, but those were just action movies with spaceships.
The first real science-fiction film of 2011 is Duncan Jones' Source Code. The Moon director has crafted a smart, slick, and relentlessly engaging techno-thriller that hinges on the intersection of a number of scientific advances, all of which are integral to the film's story. The science might be a little loopy—okay, it's very loopy—but that's irrelevant.
Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train without any idea how he might have gotten there. Colter is an Army pilot fresh from flying sorties in Afghanistan, but the face he sees in the mirror belongs to a history teacher named Sean Fentress. We soon learn that the train isn't real, in the strictest sense of the word. It was bombed earlier that morning, killing everyone on board, and now exists essentially as a memory—an eight-minute loop that can be reset over and over again. Colter has been inserted into the memory (the "source code") to discover the identity of the bomber and hopefully prevent another impending attack. He's guided along by a mysterious woman named Goodwin (Up in the Air's Vera Farmiga) who might hold the key to a sinister undertow that soon begins to pull at him.
Source Code takes a very different approach to its central concept than other stories that deal with time travel or alternate realities. Rather than the dire warnings that usually accompany any character who journeys to a different timeline, Colter is encouraged to change things. Since the train isn't real, the source code's architect insists, nothing he does there can have any effect on reality. Colter has free range to behave as crazily as he wants, as long as it produces the desired effect. He's even urged to hurt or kill passengers, if doing so might produce results. After all, they're just memories, not real people. Right?
It's Source Code's humanity, and not its scientific trappings, that make it such a satisfying movie. Though Colter is told that everyone on the train is already dead and he can do nothing to save them, they feel remarkably real to him, particularly Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the beautiful young woman with whom Fentress was travelling. He learns more about her every time the loop is reset, and eventually realizes that both he and Fentress made mistakes and missed some life-changing opportunities. But is eight minutes long enough to do anything about them?
Source Code is also one of the few movies to make good use of gamer plot devices. The film is structured very much like a particularly challenging level of an RPG; it's basically an eight-minute story that restarts every time the main character either runs out of time or makes a bad choice that leads to one of his increasingly nasty deaths. Each time he re-enters the source code, Colter is armed with new information that helps him fast-forward to the important parts. He learns to avoid traps, find objects that will be useful to him, and figures out which players are important and which are merely distractions. If you want to make a video-game movie, Zack Snyder, this is how you do it.
In the end, like most movies of its sort, Source Code falls apart under close scrutiny. Its scientific ideas are too big to be explored in a 93-minute thriller, but Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley have that figured out long before we do. By the time the film barrels to a satisfying close, we're too involved with a trio of intensely likeable characters to be particularly bothered by the inevitable dissection that will take place after the credits roll.
Though Source Code tackles some hefty ideas and works as both a techno-thriller and a mystery, it ultimately succeeds because it tells a story we can all relate to, about characters we enjoy spending an hour and a half with.