Duncan Jones follows up his ingenious "ideas" sci-fier, MOON, with this more conventional sci-fi thriller. That said I'm not saying that film is mindless in the least. It actually has lots of ideas, maybe too many. It's like watching GROUNDHOG DAY filtered through Hitchcock and 12 MONKEYS.
Solider Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal, DONNIE DARKO) wakes up on a train. Christina (Michelle Monaghan, GONE BABY GONE) sits across from him and keeps calling him Sean. He thinks he's going crazy. The last thing he remembers is flying helicopter missions in Afghanistan. Then a bomb blows up on the train.
Stevens now finds himself in a capsule. Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga, UP IN THE AIR), a soldier, talks to him over a screen. He demands to know what is happening to him. Scientist Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright, MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) explains that he is part of a new technology that can send his consciousness into the last eight minutes of someone who recently died. His mission is to discover who planted the bomb on the train before the terrorist can act again. But Stevens still believes they are keeping something from him and so do we.
Writer Ben Ripley (SPECIES III) does a nice move by keeping secrets from us in both the world of the train and the military mission. It makes both parts equally compelling. Likewise, he doesn't string those secrets out too long. The audience might be figuring out elements before the film, but they are soon revealed thereafter. We never feel like we're being jerked around too much. Too much is key because the identity of the bomber is telegraphed pretty early on and we just have to wait.
Like any good tightly woven thriller, we watch as our hero works through a scenario. Colter has to work through the same scenario several times and like GROUNDHOG DAY we get a smile as he gets savvier each time he runs through it. Also like the Bill Murray comedy, he gets a better chance of wooing the woman each time around. Unlike Murray's Phil Connors though, Colter has the advantage because Christina already likes Sean.
What keeps this good thriller from being great is multi-fold. Two million people might die if you don't succeed means nothing to an audience. While we know in our heads that two million people dying is a tragedy it's hard to care about numbers. We still need to be saving someone we care about. So Colter running through the source code of the last eight minutes of Sean's life has no inherent tension. His life is not in danger. Christina can't be saved. Even Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge are not in harm's way. There is far less tension when a bomb is on a bus than if the bomb is on a bus your wife is in.
But wait can Christina be saved? Colter thinks so. But if that is true, is the film introducing another sci-fi thread? Is Christina really the one when she thinks she's falling for Sean and not Colter? Isn't there another woman that actually cares about Colter more that could have been the love interest? There is a hint of commentary on bureaucrats manipulating soldiers that seems to be fighting for some attention here too. I told you the film had ideas.
While one might think that some of the sci-fi is forgivable hokum at best, or plot manipulation at worst, the film works because it keeps us in the moment. None of the plot holes are like black holes that suck us out of the film. They're just pot holes that cause bumps along the way.
Jones does a good job of keeping the pacing up and our attention focused on what Colter wants. We care about him because Gyllenhaal makes us want to see him win, especially off-train. Colter is a soldier. He doesn't fight against his mission. But he'd like to know why he's been assigned the mission. Why has he been cast as the hero? Why has the fate of two million people been thrust upon him? These are the secrets that make this ride worth taking.