Source Code, the new film from director Duncan Jones, is a compelling blend of old-fashioned science fiction, classic ticking clock thriller, and new age theophilosophical what if.
Army Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) has had his consciousness plugged into the memory remains of a man who died in a train bombing this morning. He has eight minutes to scour the dead man’s final thoughts for clues to who planted the bomb in order to prevent an even larger bomb being detonated later. The problem is the experience of being inserted into this “source code” simulation is disorienting, and it takes several attempts, each one ultimately ending in Colter “dying” himself in the explosion, for the Captain to find his footing and start his investigation effectively.
So the old-fashioned sci-fi obviously comes from the fantastical technology that allows a man to be transported into the memories of a dead man, and to move about freely within that memory world. The ticking clock aspect of the story, equally obviously, comes from the eight minute window in which to search for a mad bomber. Though the train Colter is riding on is only a flashback of a train, and it has already been destroyed, the knowledge that back in the real world the bomber remains at large and is planning to detonate a much larger bomb in the middle of Chicago keeps ratcheting up the tension with every failed attempt.
As for the theophilosophical element…?
It’s unclear exactly how many insertions Colter endures over the course of the film, but it’s more than a few. And each time he is forced to interact with the people on that train. Gradually he begins to form some kind of connection with the passengers, in particular the traveling companion of the man whose mind he is inhabiting, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). In the real world, the mysterious group of scientists running the Source Code program tell him repeatedly that he cannot save anyone on the train; they’re already dead. There’s nothing he can do but look for clues. But that’s not good enough for Colter. He’s determined to stop the bomb from ever detonating, contrary to any logical evidence that doing so is impossible. Failing that he refuses to give up on the idea of at least getting Christina off the train. His “handler” on the mission (Vera Farmiga) is sympathetic to his pain, and uncomfortable with the way the Captain is being used mercilessly, thrust back into the event over and over again by the program creator, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright). But… it’s just impossible.
Or is it?
Early trailers for this film I think lead many to believe they would be seeing a time travel story. And even after watching it I suspect (read: know for a fact) that some people STILL think it was some kind of time travel story. But it’s made clear multiple times over the 90+ minute run time that this is not the case. Captain Stevens can only interact with the memory simulated world of those final eight minutes as lived by the victim, a man named Sean Fentress.
But there’s more going on here. For one thing, the notion of alternate realities is brought up; the idea that every trip into the Code creates an entire universe that didn’t exist before and that could potentially survive afterward. Also, there’s the fact that more than once Colter is able to move beyond the confines of the train, into parts of the world that his “host” Sean Fentress never experienced, and so couldn’t possibly have any memory of.
And then there’s the mystery of Colter himself. He has no memory himself of having been brought in on this project. He doesn’t recall how he got here, or where here (the real world, the Source Code Project) even is. And there are, in fact, revelations that profoundly alter the way he (and we) perceive the story he’s living.
I saw this film with my wife, and we each had fundamentally different takes on what was being told and how things ended up. Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that she initially misunderstood what the exact mechanics of the story were, and so was pretty much in love with the whole thing EXCEPT that a certain “bad guy” didn’t ultimately suffer what she felt was an appropriate punishment for his or her “crimes.” When I explained what the story ACTUALLY was doing, she became much less enamored with the film as a whole. She stopped being mildly disappointed with the little moral stumble of the ending and became deeply disappointed with the entire thing.
For myself I’ll say that I loved MOST of the movie. Source Code is 99% of a great film. The 1% that fails does so in a major way. The film has at one point what I believe was THE. PERFECT. ENDING. It was both emotionally satisfying, morally compelling, and thrillingly ambiguous. Unfortunately the film continues on for about 5 minutes beyond that, in what I can only assume (hope) was a studio mandated “our-audience-is-too-dumb-for-this-they-need-a-happy-ending” denouement. It’s shockingly bad, and ridiculously unnecessary. Without it I think Source Code could stand a chance to at least be talked about in the Oscars prediction booth. With it, it drops from a great film about the nature of life, love, death, and what comes after, and settles for just a pretty good sci-fi thriller with a trite, homogenized happily ever after.
Length: 93 Minutes