March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Jake Gyllenhaal has to repeatedly relive a disaster in order to solve a mystery in tense 'Source Code'

What is Source Code? In director Duncan Jones’ “Source Code,” it’s similar to the “reset” button on your game system — well, perhaps an extremely high-tech variation of that idea. It involves “quantum physics, parabolic calculus,” according to Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), the Army captain who tries to explain the project to understandably baffled Afghan war vet Colton Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal). But, to boil it down to its basics, the process catapults a subject — in this case, Stevens — into the same situation again and again, in the hopes of solving a mystery and averting a catastrophe.
The disaster in question is an act of domestic terrorism, the bombing of a Chicago commuter train. As “Source Code” opens, Stevens wakes up to find himself facing a fresh-faced young woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who is talking to him as if they’re old friends. Stevens hasn’t a clue who she is and, when he looks in a mirror, the face he sees is not his own. He’s completely dazed; so are we.
But as screenwriter Ben Ripley’s clever, emotionally involving thriller gets rolling, the pretzel-shaped plot reveals its own loony logic. Stevens is charged with locating not only the hidden bomb but also the bomber, who is one of the dozens of passengers.
Time is not on his side: Each adventure can only last eight minutes. At that point, the explosion occurs and Stevens is jolted back into the dank little cell in which he’s being held. You think your job is tough? Try being incinerated multiple times an hour.
Jones’ previous film was “Moon,” another stylish brainteaser, in which astronaut Sam Rockwell began to question his own identity during the last days of a lunar mission. “Source Code” has the same mix of eerie suspense and bizarre humor (Stevens’ attempts to shake down suspicious fellow commuters and rifle through their carry-ons should get a few bitter laughs from anyone who’s had to deal with the heavy hands of the Transportation Security Administration).
While “Moon” was by and large a one-man show, however, “Source Code” splits its focus between the often anguished Stevens and Goodwin, who seems at first to be a cold-hearted button-pusher but eventually lowers her guard slightly. Although Gyllenhaal and Farmiga cannot actually share a scene, per se (they communicate through a video link), nevertheless a fascinating rapport develops between them as it becomes apparent they are in roughly parallel situations. Monaghan is also compelling, demonstrating a slightly different take on her character almost every time she reappears in Stevens’ quest.
The movie’s only false note comes, surprisingly, from the usually sturdy Jeffrey Wright, who tries to make up for his lack of screen time as Goodwin’s boss by augmenting his performance with a surplus of twitches, tics and strained dialogue readings; these might have been intended to suggest he’s some sort of crazed scientist with a God complex, but instead they register as an actor trying and failing to steal scenes.