It is harder than ever, I think, to really love a movie. The big-studio releases ride a wave of marketing hype that defines the consensus on a picture before any of us have experienced it; smaller films are debuted simultaneously on multiple platforms, robbing us of the sense of private, secret discovery. As these machines grind without pause, it's difficult to express personal allegiance to one of their products without feeling like a patsy. Meanwhile, it is now possible to literally push a pause button, and see a movie more closely than ever before: Digital formats allow us to study cinema shot by shot, no longer relying on the imprecise alchemy of memory. This combination of access and distance leaves us with a pornographic simulation of movie love: I can't be the only person who, after one beer too many, has replayed a favorite scene over and over on YouTube, in a futile search for an instant when I felt something, saw something.
The director Duncan Jones must understand this desire to recapture a fleeting experience: His alone-with-my-clone movie Moon was one of the handful of films in recent years to develop a devoted cult following, and he has returned to the same theme of multiple lives for a larger-scale sophomore feature, Source Code. Lightning has struck twice: Source Code is the best science-fiction film since Moon, and may prove the finest picture of this year. More than that, it explicitly grapples with how new technology has created in us an obsessive desire to achieve the perfect order in life we think we've found in DVDs and video games.
But first, it is about a bomb on a train. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier transported, via some mysterious computer program, into a sensory recording of the final eight minutes before a blast ripped apart a Chicago commuter line. He wakes up inside a soon-to-be-victim's body, next to a fellow passenger (Michelle Monaghan) understandably perplexed by his alarm, and has 480 seconds to identify the perpetrator before fire and pain whisk him back to the metal pod where he reports his data to cold superiors (Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) who digitally deploy him again. You shouldn't know more than that going in; he doesn't. But while Hitchcock famously defined suspense as a conversation in which the audience knows a bomb is under the table, Source Code's adrenaline rush of slightly comic dread is one man knowing the bomb is there, and not being able to defuse it, because it already went off. It's Groundhog Day, except instead of every day ending with a blizzard, they all end with everybody exploding.
I spoke with Jones about Source Code a week ago; somehow aptly, my digital recorder never picked up the interview. But he noted a certain lightness in the film's tone (the decision to shoot the train scenes in the crisp light of early morning has a lot to do with this, as does Gyllenhaal's talent for playing confusion) and called his picture "a body-snatcher movie with a happy ending." That's not actually giving too much away, because Source Code builds to a tableau displaying the kind of crystalline, transitory emotional perfection we look for in the movies and in life—and then it keeps going, exploring the darkest implications of that desire for control. And even as Jones' reconnaissance reveals logical knots that can't be untied without messiness and death—happy endings don't exist for anyone, by definition—it never mocks our desire to find eternal life in the movies. Source Code is André Bazin's "holy moment" in the age of the pause button. I think I'm going to love it for a long, long time.
93 SEE IT: Source Code is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinetopia, Cornelius, Oak Grove, Cinema 99, Bridgeport, City Center, Evergreen, Fox Tower, Hilltop, Lloyd Center, Lloyd Mall, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville and Sandy.