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?]