Source Code

The movie plot du jour involves a protagonist whose perception of reality is shown to be unstable. Without spoiling any of them, because they all have different ‘solutions’ or explanations for their reality-warping concepts, I would put Inception, Shutter Island, Unknown, The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code into this recent cycle of movies. All hinge upon a crisis of subjectivity for the male lead, and a concomitantly thankless role for the female, who is invariably asked to serve as the anchor to the Real, the thing to which the hero must return for confirmation of the stability, continuity and value of the real world (or some version of it). [While we’re at it, and because it’s the target for so much derision, most of it well deserved, let’s put in a good word for Sucker Punch, which also offers a wholly subjectivised reality, but from the perspective of a female protagonist; I suspect that Black Swan would also qualify in this category.] Here, the gimmick is that our hero is occupying someone else’s body, in a looping segment of their life, but this is not a film that is particularly hung up on the psychological backlash that this might cause, focusing instead on the opportunities it presents for rewriting one’s own personal history and on the wish-fulfilment of correcting past errors and perfecting one’s interactions with the people and places we meet every day and take for granted.

Source Code is built around a fabulously lean and enticing concept. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakes on a train bound for Chicago, with no idea of how he came to be there. The woman sitting opposite (Michelle Monaghan) seems to know him, and perhaps is fond of him, but he doesn’t recognise her, doesn’t even know the name that she calls him. He insists that he is a soldier serving in Afghanistan. He struggles to understand his predicament; retreating to the bathroom, he is shocked to see that he is not the same man in the mirror. Before he can get a handle on the situation, the train explodes, and he awakes in a military facility, where is told that his mission is to find the train bomber by entering the body of one of the victims for the last eight minutes of life before the explosion, so that he can help to avert another attack. The film then plays out like a cross between Speed and Groundhog Day. The trailer should give you a good idea of what you’re in for:

It’s such a nice idea that it bought plenty of advance good will. I loved the idea that the film would be entirely structured around the same eight minutes being played over and over with some minor (and some major) revisions; it’s a puzzle movie with many possible outcomes and that slightly cloying “what-would-you-do-in-this-situation” factor. Of course, there’s one of these expository scenes where the science of ‘Source Code’, the gizmo that enables Stevens to zap himself into the body and mind of a man on the train for the last eight minutes of his life, is explained. I must have blinked, or gone misty-headed for a moment, because it didn’t make any sense to me at all, but as soon as somebody said the magic word “quantum”, I could relax and go with it. Quantum physics has been a gift to the writers of modular, multiform or non-linear narratives. You can make up any variation, allude to quantum physics, and the audience will be invited to accept it for fear of looking stoopid. I don’t understand quantum physics, but I know a good narratological loophole when I see it, so it’ll work for now. [For future reference: the quantum defence will grow old and lazy pretty fast (when you have an infinite number of universes where you can have any and every possible outcome, the stakes in any drama seem rather diminished), so here’s hoping it doesn’t get overstretched.]

There are plot-holes big enough to drive an exploding train through in Source Code: you may find yourself with nagging thoughts afterwards, such as why Colter’s superiors (the controllers of Source Code) can’t give him any specific information, like which carriage the bomb is in, or whether the bomber left the train. You’ll speculate on the implications – isn’t Colter creating a new, branching universe every time he goes back to the scene of the train bombing, thus killing all the passengers again and again while he tries to find a way to rescue the only one he fancies among them. The ending also throws up numerous questions even as it seems to tie things up and plants a definite tonal and emotional conclusion on things (Matt Singer has an incisive discussion of the ending, but you should steer clear if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want spoilers). You’ll either find this satisfyingly tied off and gift-wrapped for your pleasure, or suddenly trite and tricksy. Either way, there’s no getting away from the fact that Source Code doesn’t end in the way you think its going to. Just as The Adjustment Bureau shunned genre convention by not ending in the overthrow of an oppressive system, but in accommodation with it, so Duncan Jones’s film refuses to pose dystopically or posit a conspiracy of evil controlling the world. It doesn’t even offer a consistent attitude towards its central technological conceit, meaning that all discussion of its merits and de-merits are down to you and anyone who will listen after the screening (you could also add a comment on this post if you need to get something out of your system). As far as scientific inconsistencies go, though, I’m not too bothered. Like the spate of films I mentioned in my intro, where the protagonists are made to question some of the fundamentals of their own identity and/or their relationship to reality, this is not a story about science, but about exploring the functions and mechanics of narrative: given the opportunity to replay, adjust and correct a small piece of time and space, Colter Stevens works like an editor affecting how a story plays out, enjoying the ultimate creative power to revisit a moment of defeat and turn it into a personal and social triumph.

But let’s face facts here: Source Code is engaging, quite exciting, and refreshingly upbeat, but it’s a film about terrorism, and a method of addressing it, that doesn’t want to get its hands dirty with the implications of this aspect of the story. The threat against the train is a ticking-time-bomb scenario only so far as it serves narrative purposes and gives our protagonist an urgent time constraint. Source Code has a body count that must be well into four figures (admittedly, it’s the same crowd of people being killed many times), but there’s barely a sight of blood, screaming, grief or pain. This is terrorism as a backdrop to the perplexed and paradoxed heroic psyche, not as moral question mark to a complacent nation. That’s fair enough as an artistic decision, I suppose, but it misses out on a potentially fascinating and edgy response to its own concept. Pair it up with Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing for the opposite end of a current spectrum – that’s a film with all the dirt and close-contact of the ‘War on Terror’, without any of the blue-sky, big-picture, happyland denialism. At least, that’s what I’m saying in this universe. Somewhere, in another universe, there’s a near-identical version of me applauding Source Code for its guileless optimism.

[P.S. Serious question: if there’s an infinite number of universes, covering every possibly variable, is there a universe where there isn’t an infinite number of universes?]

16 thoughts on “Source Code

  1. I didn’t like how they needlessly turned Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) into a baddie for no other reason than they needed an antagonist. I would’ve preferred Rutledge to be a sort of well meaning extremist, one who sees this technology as a powerful new weapon in the War on Terror (or shall we say Conflict Formerly Known as the War On Terror). Instead he’s a callous bastard for no real reason I can see. Perhaps the cold, emotionless scientist trope? Also the fact that he was a civilian ticked me off even more; “Only a soldier understands another soldier, civilians don’t know how good they have it.”

    • His was an odd characterisation, indeed. His acting was rather hammy, too, as if he had been instructed to play a kind of moustache-twirling villain. I thought the twist was going to be that the train bombing had been engineered entirely as an exercise to test out the source code technology (hey, if there’s an infinite number of universes, why worry about the deaths of a few hundred people in one of them? I’m glad they didn’t go in that direction, but it would have given the film more bite.

      I didn’t see Rutledge as a ‘baddie’, though. Yes, he prioritises the mission over the man, and doesn’t want to acknowledge the full extent of Stevens’s sentience, but that’s where the film’s moral ambivalence lies, in the argument over how a soldier can be deployed. That idea that the military might somehow own a soldier’s body and mind, and can use it for its own ends regardless of the suffering involved, is the closest the film gets to taking a political and ethical stance on its material.

  2. Thanks for an enjoyable discussion of the film Dan (particularly liked your P.S.). I agree that this seemed to be a ‘terrorism as backdrop’ film, but as Colter’s full predicament is revealed, I was also struck by how much the film seemed to be preoccupied by the contemporary image of the ‘damaged’ veteran soldier, and the controversies about US military casualties being hidden from public view. I haven’t decided whether I think this is just an example of what David Holloway calls (in his book ‘9/11 and the War on Terror’) ‘modish references’ to Iraq and Afghanistan, or a deeper metaphorical engagement with such issues. I also found the film an enjoyable ride, although the train bomber was a lazy piece of characterisation, looking (to me) like the fey/proto-gay/gay villain archetype that is still disappointingly common in Hollywood.

    • Hi, Lisa. Yes, as I started to say in an earlier comment, it is about the proper uses for a soldier’s body – who owns it, what rights does it have? I notice that they never tried to mislead the audience with the possible interpretation that this is all the deathbed hallucination of a head-trauma patient in a military hospital, which could easily have happened; in fact there’s barely a hint, even from the outset, that this might be “all in the mind”. So, that avoidance of the mental focus (as with Avatar, the transfer to a new body seems quite easy and comfortable, while I suspect that in real life it would send most of us into shock), and the emphasis on the status of the soldier’s body that you mention, makes it all the stranger that the film is not interested in the carnage that keeps on happening.

      As for the bomber, I agree – they were obviously looking for someone who won’t immediately stand out as a shady character: Michael Arden is a baby-faced boy-next door who doesn’t fit any of the terrorist stereotypes – he’s not a mastermind or a powerful killer, but a slightly pathetic young guy. I can’t remember what his motivation was, except some vague gestures towards patriotic punishment of a decadent, morally corrupt populace. The quasi-religious morally fundamentalist nutcase figure is, I think, one of the trendiest Hollywood targets this year.

  3. Hi Dan, very much enjoyed your take on the film; I hadn’t made the connection with the theme du jour across Hollywood of the protagonist struggling with reality, which was interesting to read in particular.

    I have a few issues with it (the film, not the article above) and felt a bit perplexed regarding the whole ‘err…it’s quantum physics…now stop asking questions on the back row’ line it took a third of the way in. The thing is, I felt really comfortable as a viewer last year when I was required to accept the logic of Inception’s world, so this got me thinking as to why I struggled with accepting the concept of Source Code. And I think the reason was possibly because Christopher Nolan never once – as far as I can remember – asked the audience to accept it via a shifty explanatory scene. It was either accept it or don’t, and I wish Source Code had followed suit. There’s certainly nothing wrong with trying to connect conceptual ideas with an audience using logic, I suppose, but the more outlandish the concept I’d argue it’s better to rely on the ‘fiction’ element of ‘science fiction’ more than the ‘science’. Getting this exactly right really matters for me – I find myself caring less about the characters if I can’t wholly give in to the idea behind their particular world.

    (In a parallel reality I may well believe that such disorientation on the part of the viewer helps them to identify with Jake Gyllenhaal’s character even more…)

    I’m amazed at the praise Vera Farmiga has received for her acting, by the way. The role obviously needed a certain aloofness, but I couldn’t help wondering throughout (perhaps a tad unfairly) if her general air of detachment was due to concerns about the script.

    Jeffrey Wright’s performance, while odd, for some reason seems to fit with the tone set by the rest of the characters on the train…all very specific ‘types’, and there’s plenty of acting that wouldn’t look amiss in an 80s episode of Neighbours: Moody cool guy in shades, slightly famous comedian, business couple, student, sci fi geek are all one-dimensional…as is the character that’s relatively more important to the plot: Michael Arden’s insane bomber. I think if you are prepared to surrender to a plot like Source Code’s you want a film where everything – the script, the performances, the feel of the damned thing – rewards you for that leap of faith, and sadly that didn’t happen for me.

    One final thought, on a more positive note…the fight/action scenes were dealt with very swiftly and realistically. What did you make of them? Gyllenhaal’s fights are as far away from the trained ultra-combat we’ve seen from the Bourne trilogy and the like as possible, but I quite enjoyed that – it felt very refreshing. Like real life, the scuffles in Source Code rarely last more than a punch or two, and there’s a realistic underlying fear in the reactions of minor and major characters as events unfold.

    I’m not sure how much mileage there is in the Hollywood action film where the fights are a bit ‘school playground’ though!

    • Hi, Stu – I agree, the scientific explanation shouldn’t have been important. They should have focused on the psychological, philosophical or ethical implications of the technology. I like Vera Farmiga, and I could tell in retrospect that her detachment was due to the fact that she was reading text, not interacting with a human being on a screen. We have no insight, though, into what clinches it for her and makes her decide to take Stevens’ side.

      Nice point about the fight scenes – the fight with the ‘Muslim suspect’ was particularly scrappy and awkward. It was interesting to see ‘heroic action’ reframed as embarrassing debacle, though there was a bit more of a proper showdown with the bomber. I also liked that the climax of the film was not an explosion or an action sequence – that could easily have come off as an anti-climax rather than the emotional payoff they were going for – I think many viewers have felt cheated, though.

  4. Does Being John Malkovich slot into this category somewhere?
    I haven’t seen any of the films you’ve mentioned here, but every time I see a trailer for one these days I think “Hang on, isn’t that Inception?” I’ll watch them all eventually and no doubt realise the individual merits of each (except Black Swan – sometimes you just know from the trailer…)

    • BJM might well qualify, though the difference might be that it doesn’t create any mystery around the premise of occupying another body – characters in the film just do it and accept it as something that can happen. But it’s a similar sort of playing with subjectivity and identity that goes on. I haven’t seen it for ages, and not since a student ran off with my DVD, but I will watch it again at some point. I was drawing attention to a recent fad for these kinds of earth-shattering plots where nothing is as it seems, etc., but I’m sure it’s not just a recent phenomenon, just one that seems to be influenced more recently by trends in non-linear narratives, complex storylines that reward repeat viewings (otherwise referred to as ‘ker-ching!’).

      Black Swan is not as bad as you or I thought it was going to be. Or maybe it is. I was very much on the fence, because I couldn’t decide whether it was meant to be as daft as it was.

    • Now that I think about it, one film I missed off my little list of existential crisis movies is Duncan Jones’s previous film, Moon. I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending, but people who were fans of that shouldn’t really be the ones complaining about the ending of Source Code, because Moon is also very optimistic about humans’ ability to adjust to radical changes in the relationship between their body and their mind. That’s about as vague as I can be…..

      Also, I keep hearing that the studio interfered with the ending of Source Codeto put a positive spin on it, but this is not true – what we get is the ending that Jones himself insisted on adding.

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  6. I just cleared out my loft and found a box of movies on VHS – now I have a long list of films to find on DVD. Chief amongst them are Better Tomorrow (1, 2 and 3), Hard Boiled, The Barefoot Kid, God of Gamblers, Drunken Master, Tiger on the Beat, the Police Story films, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow – I had a sudden urge for a nostalgia session, but unfortunately (perhaps fortunately for Steph) we no longer have a VHS player. They’ll be languishing in a charity shop by the time I get home. I can feel an Amazon wish list coming on.
    The second box was full of cassette tapes and a new wave of nostalgia of a different kind (a couple of the tapes took me right back to a certain field near Llangollen.)

    • Ah, Llangollen. Ah, VHS. I still have a player in my office, but it’s not very reliable. I’m now stuck with a giant pile of chunky tapes that I’m unlikely to watch again. I tried to flogging them to a warehouse that shifts that kind of thing, but even they were no longer handling tapes. Sigh. I was also reflecting recently on the fact that our kind of communal viewing has all but disappeared. I can’t remember the last time I watched a DVD with a group of people (oh, except that I watched Snow White with two of my nieces a few weeks ago, which was a treat), while we drank and made fun of the films we were watching, and invariably one of us fell asleep before the end.

      Wasn’t Tiger on the Beat the one where Chow Yun Fat put a shotgun on a rope so that he could whip it out and shoot round corners? And there was a chainsaw duel at the end? I always thought Mike Leigh’s oeuvre would benefit from a bit of that. I wouldn’t mind seeing God of Gamblers again, either, but maybe the recollection is better than the actuality. Once you get past the first half hour, I remember CYF spent most of that film sobbing and screeching and rocking back and forth. I still have tapes of the Heroic Trio movies, Rich and Famous, City on Fire, and Sex and Zen, to name but a few. Happy memories all. Except Rich and Famous. I can barely recall that one….

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  8. An amazingly good movie! Just watched Source Code, and I loved how it played with our expectations, stereotypes and willingness to believe in a better way (you just make a hole in the wall where you think a door should be).
    Bven if you don’t understand it, and I struggle, isn’t quantum physics brilliant?!

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