Director Duncan Jones (“Moon”) has produced a first-rate thriller with Jake Gyllenhaal as Captain Colter Stevens, sent back in time and into the body of a man on a commuter train eight minutes before it will explode, to see if he can find the bomber.
At first, we are as confused as Stevens, as he comes to on a Chicago-bound commuter train, apparently mid-conversation with a beautiful woman (Michelle Monaghan), with no idea of who or where he is. He goes into the bathroom and sees someone else’s face in the mirror, as in the old television series “Quantum Leap.” And then everything explodes and he is in some sort of capsule, talking to an officer in some sort of operations center on the other side of a window, (Vera Farmiga as Colleen Goodwin), trying to understand his mission though she answers most of his questions with “not relevant.” Her sense of urgency is clear, though. He must find the bomber on the train before he makes it into downtown Chicago to set off an even deadlier bomb.
Like an action-adventure version of “Groundhog Day,” Stevens is sent back over and over to re-live the same eight minutes to try to notice as much as he can about the people around him. He is in the past, Goodwin tells him. Those events have happened. There is nothing he can do to stop the bomber from killing everyone on the train, including the man whose body he is temporarily occupying. Those people are already dead. His mission is limited to identifying the bomber so that he can prevent the even greater tragedy that is yet to happen. As Stevens goes back and back again over the final eight minutes before the explosion, he is able to learn from his mistakes and start over. But it also means that whatever he has to do must be accomplished in eight minutes. And he re-experiences those minutes over and over again, learning more about what is happening on the train, and in his reports to Goodwin more about what the program he is working for it all about, his ideas about what his mission entails begin to enlarge.
Jones makes each replay different and enthralling as we work with Stevens to find the bomber and then to solve the bigger issues he uncovers as well. It is fast, fun, and exciting and bolstered with a top-notch cast to make some of the wilder elements of the science fiction work (though no one ever really figures out how to manage temporal anomalies). Gyllenhaal is believably dashing, dedicated, and dreamy, and Monaghan is believably someone it would take far less than eight minutes to fall for. Jeffrey Wright clearly relishes his role as the single-minded creator of the system that sends Stevens back in time and Farmiga is ineffably moving as the officer whose conflicts about what she is asking Stevens to do deepen as she keeps hitting the rewind button. Jones shows a sure hand in delivering on the concept and the action but he has already mastered pacing, story-telling, and heart. He makes each of the replays vital and engaging and knows just when to lighten things up. And he even sneaks in an affectionate “Quantum Leap” reference, with Scott Bakula providing the voice of Stevens’ father and even throwing in a signature “Oh boy.” It is the wit and attention to detail (pay close attention to that last shot) that makes this story worth going back to a few extra times.
Translation: Strong language, terrorist violence including bombs, intense peril and some graphic injuries
Family discussion: Is it fair to keep some important information about his situation from Coulter? What should Goodwin do at the end of the movie?
If you like this, try: “Deja Vu” with Denzel Washington and “Moon” by this director