If Rod Serling, Christopher Nolan, and Stephen Hawking had collaborated on a sci-fi remake of Groundhog Day, it might have come out a whole lot like Duncan Jones' Source Code. The film is so full of obvious subtext that it feels like an elongated Twilight Zone episode, but because it jumbles up time structures with such willing abandon, and ends with a nod toward the possibilities of the infinite, Jones' sci-fi thriller has an undeniably contemporary vibe.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, a brave military man seemingly trapped inside a dank cockpit-like container from which he has video and audio contact with Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who, under orders from the stern Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), forces Colter to relive the same few minutes of someone else's life over and over in order to find out who bombed a commuter train in Chicago that morning. Colter quickly memorizes the order of the events he sees repeated again and again, and through trial and error figures out how to manipulate his surroundings in order to get the information the mission requires. As he starts asking questions about the true nature of his mission, however, Colter uncovers the truth about himself, as well as the universe.
Source Code is the kind of movie that draws in viewers by keeping them in the dark narratively. Tiny dollops of plot revelations are doled out intermittently until the whole picture is revealed in the film's closing minutes. For that to work, you need actors who are instantly sympathetic and can keep an audience hooked even if they're not sure why. Gyllenhaal does have that kind of charisma, although not necessarily in abundance, and the film is at its best when it's in whodunit mode, with our smart and charming hero slowly putting together the clues.
However, this aspect of the movie takes a backseat to the sci-fi storyline going on at the command center, and those lengthy, dialogue-heavy sequences lack the immediacy and tension of the scenes on the train. During these scenes, Colter has nothing to do other than think and try to cajole explanations out of Colleen, who responds with portentous non-answers. This would work if there were a huge dramatic payoff at the end of the movie, but Jones' conception of how the universe works pretty much eliminates the possibility of drama. The ideas he has are fun to talk about -- it's not hard to imagine Jones hatching the whole project during lengthy late-night drug-and-alcohol-fueled conversations with friends -- but the movie itself seems entirely superfluous once he's laid out his grand design.