Source Code, for me, is one of those movies where you are completely into it, biting your nails and secretly hoping for some a tangible, positive outcome aka ‘a happy ending,’ even when you only catch it on DVD and not in the theater. It is also one of those movies, that when you think about it afterwards, huge plot issues threaten to ruin the happy feeling that watching really good movie can elicit. Directed by Duncan Jones, whose Moon (2009) blew me away, Source Code follows U.S. soldier Colter Stevens as he uses an experimental program to thwart future terrorist attacks. However, the fancy military program isn’t a new weapon, per se, but rather sophisticated computer engineering (the titular “Source Code”) that allows Colter to upload his consciousness into the last eight minutes of a deceased person’s memories. In the film, this transfer of consciousness is all in the name of “national security,” as the deceased person in question is a victim of a terrorist train explosion. Talk about the Patriot Act going (more) insane. Those eight minutes are mine, Uncle Sam!
The fact that I’m watching a movie and thinking about the Patriot Act is one of the things I really liked about Source Code. I also loved that the film not only took us through Colter’s struggle to solve the mystery of who bombed the train, but also explored Colter’s struggle to understand how he got from a helicopter to living someone else’s last 8 minutes, over and over again. Jake Gyllenhaal’s emotional performance, especially his relationship with his father, helped me remember how much I used to like him as an actor, pre-‘white washed’ Prince of Persia. He handled the action scenes well, with the right amount of brow-furrowing determination, and his portrayal of Colter is of a man who is sentimental at heart. In many ways, Colters stands in for the audience in this story, as he works against the military bosses of the “Source Code” program, Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and program inventor Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright). We see Colter wake up from his first 8 minutes on the train, not knowing who he was in that place, nor what military order he is currently following. Colter, with Farmiga’s Goodwin as his main contact to the “real” world, attempts to understand why he is where he is, what his purpose in the “Source Code” is, and, in many moments, what in the hell is even going on. Colter also represents, and advocates for, our desire that this fatally injured man, now at the whim of the military-industrial complex, find the truth, peace, and perhaps even love. This inclusion of not only the journey to stop a terrorist attack but also Colter’s journey to find his place in all of this is, to me, what makes Source Code such a compelling ride. In the moments we aren’t hoping he finds the bad guy on the train, we are hoping he bests the bad guy (aka the military) holding his body and brain captive in their machines long after he has served his country honorably. Because Colter isn’t just a tool to solve a suspenseful mystery, as some thriller’s heroes are, we are relieved when Goodwin sees the ill we see and corrects it, ultimately giving both death and life to Colter.
However, as I mentioned, once the ride was over and the ending complete with possible futures and corrected pasts, my brain began to go, Whaaaaaa? For instance, how is it that someone’s 8 mins can interact with bombs and people and situations that the deceased had no knowledge or contact with? Is it just an algorithm that takes the prejudices and assumptions built into those 8 mins and builds possible situations based on them? How can that be helpful, when people’s perceptions and prejudices are inherently flawed? And, if Colter’s conciousness is in another person, altering the timeline, can his future consciousness live in yet another and another and another by using the “Source Code” program? Most troubling to me, if the deceased consciousness Colter inhabited is saved from the attacks, but now under the power of Colter, has he been murdered? Regardless of the moral implications of taking over someone’s body and displacing their “self,” how does Colter pretend to be someone who existed, a historian much less? Won’t people know he has no idea what he’s talking about? Being a historian requires training and knowledge and a certain skill set that Colter might have the ability for, but has no current knowledge of. And what about the concept of consent in regards to the woman he loves so much that he changed what happened on the train just so she could live? Does she love Colter or does she love the guy whose body he took over? Do multiple timelines now exist? Have they always existed and we were just seeing a slice of one? Did the train kill people in one timeline but not in the other that was altered by Colter? Is this all just magic? Is it all in Colter’s head, and if so, how did the timeline of Goodwin get altered? Or is Colter just imagining he has changed history? Is all of this a fantasy of the deceased pilot from the beyond so he can reconcile with his father and in reality, “Source Code” doesn’t even exist?
In the end, I guess the fact that I have these questions isn’t really a sign of criticism, but of a good sci-fi/speculative fiction film. Well except the murder/consent issues… Those are real concerns of mine. Either way, after watching this film, I am left to ponder the metaphysics of our world, the implications of this story being reality. And with our “real” timeline of terrorism and an overreaching, yet under-serving government, these questions should be asked more often. Even if it’s by watching a movie.