Something is happening in the world of cinematic science fiction. You can see it in virtually every frame of Duncan Jones' new thriller "Source Code," opening today.
Sometimes you can see it in ambitious -- if not successful -- fantasies like box-office hit "Inception." Sometimes you can see it in less presumptuous form in "The Adjustment Bureau" based on a fantasy by legendary sci-fi master Philip K. Dick.
Here's what it looked like to me when I reviewed Jones' superb first film "Moon" in 2009, a sudden small announcement of a major film talent that no one, as the saying goes, saw coming.
"Some of the best and smartest films we've ever had have always been sci-fi. For decades now, we've gotten used to the genre commandeered by the mega-geekdom of techno-mythic windbag George Lucas and all of his onscreen progeny (who include all the silly, thundering Legos of 'Transformers.')
"Once upon a time, sci-fi was for grownups and smarties and people who cared about good movies, not the littlest ones and the pugnacious fanboys cherishing their right to remain immature beasties for as long as society will let them."
Which is why "Source Code" -- as snappy and fast and watchable as it is -- is a bit of a disappointment from a filmmaker whose debut was as unexpected and promising as Jones' was in "Moon."
"Source Code" is brainy without exactly being smart. It's clever without being memorable too, complicated without being complex, much less profound.
But for all that, it's a pretty nifty minor suspense thriller -- if not quite as fast-moving and entertaining as Neal Burger's modest B-thriller "Limitless."
"Source Code" is about a fellow (Jake Gyllenhaal) jolted to life on a train opposite an adorable young woman (Michelle Monaghan) he's supposed to know but doesn't. When he looks at the train's bathroom mirror, the face staring back at him isn't the face he knows as his.
It turns out, you see, he's a subject in a governmental "Source Code" experiment (the doctor-in-charge calls it "time reassignment") called "beleaguered castle" which somehow allows the young man with Gyllenhaal's puss to occupy the bodies of others in the final eight minutes of their lives.
Why is he being forced to do this? It turns out there's considerable urgency there. The train is carrying a dirty bomb into Chicago and unless he can find out where it is and stop it, bad things are going to happen in Chi-town. Really, really bad things -- things which will even divert the sorrows of Cubs fans.
So under the direction of a tough military officer (Vera Farmiga) and the "Source Code's" mad scientist (Jeffrey Wright who seems mad, as in angry, more than mad as in cuckoo), he keeps going back to the final eight minutes of different people's lives to get new clues on the whereabouts of the Big One and head it off before it turns Chicago into poisoned kibble.
In the process, of course, he keeps falling for Monaghan at every eight-minute interval, which means he wants to save her life as a very high priority. Considering that Monaghan's cuteness is well off the charts, it's understandable that he'd feel that way.
The trouble with the premise, of course, is that it's close to a dour sci-fi thriller version of "Groundhog Day" and if, like me, you always thought "Groundhog Day" was just too bloody silly even for a Bill Murray movie, you can't exactly give "Source Code" the passionate allegiance it hungers for.
It plays like several different "MacGyver's" in a row.
And too, there's the Gyllenhaal problem. Don't get me wrong, he's a fine young actor who inspires a lot of affection. I'm just not sure I'd want him to be the only person alive standing in the way of apocalyptic disaster in Chicago.
I'd have felt a lot better if it had been Bradley Cooper of "Limitless" fame or Aaron Eckhart. But then Eckhart, as moviegoers know, is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Michelle Rodriguez to keep L.A. from being colonized by extraterrestrial aliens in search of water in "Battle: Los Angeles."
Things are tough in the big cities, I tell you.
"Source Code" is certainly nifty enough to be enjoyable. But it may take until next time before Jones fulfills the promise of "Moon" -- and gives us a movie as genuinely intelligent as it is cerebrally showoffy.
3 stars (out of 4)
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright
Directed by Duncan Jones
Rated PG-13 for language and some violence including disturbing images.