Source Code‘s protagonist (ably if unremarkably played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is Colter Stevens, a soldier taking part in a secret, experimental programme: Stevens’ consciousness is transported into the body of a passenger on a train that exploded earlier that day, with eight minutes to find out who planted the bomb so the government can find the perpetrator and prevent him from detonating a second, bigger device. The premise isn’t exactly revolutionary, reminiscent as it is of TV’s Quantum Leap (the lead actor of which has a cameo in the film) and Tony Scott’s Deja Vu (2006), as well as, to a lesser degree, Groundhog Day (1993) and Paycheck (2003).
Both the trailer and the tagline on the poster (“Change the past. Save the future.”) imply that, contrary to what Stevens is told, the Source Code technology can alter time, if the plucky hero only shows enough rebelliousness to force a Hollywood happy ending into existence through sheer determination. So, Source Code exhibits all the signs of a competent, but rote and stereotypical sci-fi action thriller with nothing else to recommend it for.
—Some spoilers from a different universe materialised below—
And that expectation is fulfilled by most of the movie, complete with an obligatory twist ending about the nature of the programme that could be seen coming from the very start. Except that the twist happens, and the chase for the bomber ends, an hour into the film, and even before that it seems to lose interest in the race-against-the-clock angle. That may be seen as a structural weakness of the film’s screenplay, but for my money, it’s the 30-minute coda that turns Source Code into something more interesting than a typical thriller. On the surface, there’s still a sentimental happy ending to satisfy the masses, and the movie does not really deal with its seeming plot holes and the vague explanations of the technology at its core. But if you dig deeper, there’s a dark, ambiguous undercurrent to the way the story plays out.
It’s never made entirely clear just what the Source Code programme entails. It’s presented as an advanced computer simulation sown together from the first bombing’s victims’ last memories. But from the start, that explanation falls short of what we actually see Stevens experience. Either his mind is making up the things not covered by the memories, or (and this is what’s suggested in the audio commentary) the Source Code machine is actually creating parallel universes every time Stevens gets zapped back onto the train. Both interpretations are valid (though the former requires significantly more handwaving of scenes that were probably meant differently), and both introduce some darkness to the film.
At least some portions of the story, certainly the ending, might be wish-fulfilment on Stevens’ part: he wants to save the passengers on the train, get the girl, say a proper goodbye to his father, and prove a point to the scientists, so he manages to do all those things. The brain, we are told, keeps on working for a while even after death, and what we see may be the last flicker of a dead man’s imagination. It’s also possible (though I’ll admit the film doesn’t give any hints regarding this possibility) that even the facts Stevens finds out about the bomber are fictional and that the entire project is a failure, resulting in the bomber not being stopped.
If the other theory is correct (leaving aside the logistical questions of how such a mechanism would work), the scientists aren’t just exploiting Stevens, they’re callously creating entire universes, tacitly accepting that dozens of people are going to die every time Stevens follows his objective (which is not to save the people on the train, but to find the bomber), or billions of them once the Source Code stream is cut off. Stevens isn’t an innocent here, either: he only gets his happy ending by supplanting the consciousness of the man whose body he stole and by pretending to be someone he isn’t. “Our” universe may not even be the original one, but one of many created in another Source Code experiment, one of many where the technology is also used to make new worlds.
Do these possibilities recontextualise the rest of the movie in such a way as to turn it into a masterpiece? Well, no. For that, the film would have had to really commit, and it doesn’t. Even the second interpretation, which the creators suggest in the commentary was the intended one, is barely hinted at in the film proper, and the moral iffiness of Stevens continuing the life of another man isn’t addressed at all. But it does mean, ever so slightly, that the film is a little more than the slick sophomore effort it could have been. Next up for Duncan Jones: a feature based on the WarCraft games, with what is sure to be an even bigger budget and likely to be an even dumber script. Let’s see what he makes of it.