April 5th, 2011 by Mike Fulton

This isn’t really a review intended to guide those people who are trying to decide if they should see the movie. It gets into details of the plot that would be considered spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you’ll probably want to wait until you have to read this.

The basic premise of the movie Source Code is that a scientist working with the military, Dr. Rutledge, played by Jeffrey Wright, has figured out a way to hook into the short-term memory of a recently deceased person and use it to create what amounts to a sort of virtual reality into which their avatar can be inserted. The experiment hasn’t really been tested yet when a terrorist sets off a bomb on a Chicago commuter train during the morning rush hour, warning that a dirty bomb will be set off in downtown Chicago later that day. This gives them an opportunity to send their avatar, Jake Gyllenhaal as U.S. Army Captain Colter Stevens, into the memories of a victim from the train bombing, looking for clues that will lead them to the bomber before the dirty bomb is set off.

When we first meet Capt. Stevens, he’s in an odd sort of module that looks something like a spacecraft or maybe a bathysphere. His only contact to the outside world is a computer screen where he is being given instructions by Capt. Colleen Goodwin, USAF, played by Vera Farmiga. Odd instructions, on top of which he’s confused and doesn’t know how he got there.

Before he really figures out what’s going on, there’s a flash and he finds himself on a train across from the lovely Michelle Monaghan. She’s talking to him like she knows him and he just doesn’t know what’s going on. After a few minutes, he figures out that he’s essentially taken over the body of a teacher, Sean Fentress, on his morning commute, but he still doesn’t know how or why. Eight minutes after he appears on the train, there’s a huge explosion and he finds himself back in the weird module, with Capt. Goodwin asking him for details of what happened. Before he knows what’s happening, she send him back to the train, where he finds himself replaying the first moments of his earlier visit.

Capt. Stevens manages to figure out a few useful facts about the bombing each time he goes back, and also finds out more information about his role in this experiment. As he becomes more focused on the mission, he becomes more and more fixated on the idea that he can save the girl and the others on the train, even though Dr. Rutledge keeps telling him that this isn’t really time travel. He also still has questions about why he doesn’t remember anything since 2 months earlier when he was flying helicopter missions in Iraq.

The movie’s premise has a lot of contradictions built-in. At the heart of it all is the multiverse theory of time-travel, which says that any changes caused by a time traveler cause a new timeline to be created, while the original timeline is unchanged. Capt. Stevens keeps thinking that he can change things and save the people on the train, even though they keep telling him it’s not time travel. All they’re really doing is creating a sort of virtual reality that uses the 8-minute short term memory storage of one of the train victims as its underlying database.

First big contradiction… if it’s not really time travel, then where the heck did all the information in the “simulation” really come from, because there’s just no way in hell it came from the memory of the one victim. They’re sending Stevens back to find the bomb and the guy who planted it, but how is this teacher supposed to have that information in his short-term memory?

The idea is that Capt. Stevens can move around and interact with the environment to find out new data, but how does figuring out that the bomb is hidden in the restroom’s overhead ventilation panel come from the teacher’s memory?  How does chasing the bomber into a train-station parking lot and finding the dirty bomb inside a parked van come from the memory of a guy who had been sitting on a train talking to a pretty girl?  There’s just no way you get new information that the guy didn’t have in the first place. It just makes no sense at all.

This isn’t a contradiction so much as a question: it works out that Capt. Stevens was selected for this experiment because he was all but killed in combat. He’s not really in the module he thinks he is, but rather in a life-support chamber with his brain wired into a computer, because apparently he’s got enough brain function left over to allow them to communicate back and forth with him. If he’s got that much brain function left over, why are they experimenting on him? It’d be bad enough if he were actually really dead and they had figured out how to use his brain as an organic computer, but he’s not even dead. Why are they talking about WIPING his memory after they’ve successfully caught the bomber based on the information he gave him? It’s all very mad-scientist and evil-government cliché.

At the end, once the bomber has been caught, Capt. Stevens convinces Capt. Goodwin to send him back one more time and then terminate his body’s life support at the end of the eight minutes.  He’s still convinced he can really change things and he wants to save the girl, the train, and then live happily ever after in this new timeline.  She send him back, and armed with the various bits of knowledge from earlier trips, he quickly disarms the bomb on the train, catches the bomber, and calls it all in.  He sends an email to Capt. Goodwin explaining everything.  At the end of the eight minutes, he kisses the girl… but then nothing happens.  The trip doesn’t end this time.  Instead, the train reaches its stop, they get out and embark on their happily-ever-after. 

Meanwhile, Capt. Goodwin gets an email telling him how the experiment was responsible for the capture of the bomber everybody’s talking about that morning, before anything happened.  That has to confuse the hell out of her and anybody else she tells about it, since they’re all convinced no time-travel is involved.

The end of the movie really should have been to fade to black on the kiss as the eight minutes of the final trip expired.   If there was really no time-travel involved, then there was no way to really create an alternate universe where the train was saved.  All we were really doing was playing back a tape of the short-term memory recovered from Sean Fentriss’ dead brain, and using it to run a VR simulation, so the whole thing should have ended after the eight minutes was over.

On the other hand, if we’re to take the ending as a genuine alternate reality, and not a dream in the mind of a dying man, then it contradicts everything we’ve been told over and over about how this experiment wasn’t really time-travel.

Not really a plot hole per se, but an observation: Capt. Stevens seems awfully blasé about taking over Sean Fentriss’ body and stealing the girl he liked.  It was one thing to use the guy’s body to try to find the bomber, but it seems really out of character for him to casually decide to toss aside Fentriss the way he does.

Some people will read all this and say “It’s a movie… it doesn’t have to make perfect sense.”  I agree, and I’ll indulge in a little willing suspension of disbelief here and there.  I generally liked the movie just fine right up until the ending and that’s when the contradictions just demanded too much of my attention for me to ignore them.  All I really ask is that the story should be consistent with its own set of rules.  Source Code doesn’t even come close.

The creative team here is mostly a group of newcomers, although to be fair you’ll often see an equally big pile of contradictions from more-experienced filmmakers.  The movie is based on an original screenplay written by Ben Ripley, mostly known for his work on Species III and Species: The Awakening.  It was directed by Duncan Jones, mostly known for 2009’s Moon.

The image quality in the theatre was really bad.  The image was soft and jittery, like the lens was dirty and the projector not mounted properly.  And it seemed like the print quality was poor in the first place, with really contrasty washed-out highlights at times and faded colors.  It didn’t look like an artistic choice… just a poor quality print.  I like going to the theatre to see a movie, but if theatre owners don’t bother taking more care to ensure good project quality, I’m going to wait for more and more movies to be available for home viewing.

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8 Responses to “Movie Discussion: Source Code”

Ok Here’s what i’m hung up on.

If Jake takes over the teachers body there at the end, to go live happily ever after and so forth, then when he makes the text message to capt. goodwin, and she walks by the room with the body being kept alive, and it IS still alive and breathing, as if it hasn’t been used yet, how is it still alive? Didn’t his soul transfer into the teachers body permanently? Who’s in Jake’s battle torn body laying on a table now?

William, I’m of the opinion that the ending is just plain impossible. At best you could say it’s all happening in the VR simulation being run in Colter’s brain.

Colter simply could not have made any changes to any past reality while he was experiencing what was really nothing more than a sophisticated VR world. Dr. Rutledge kept insisting that no actual time travel was involved and that no changes to the past were possible, and I think we should take that at face value. Frankly I don’t see how it could happen accidentally when all they’re really doing is playing back memories into a neural interface hooked into Colter’s brain.

Also keep in mind that if it was all happening in Colter’s brain, there’s ultimately no requirement that everything actually makes sense. They extracted eight minutes of memories from the train victim’s memory, so that’s where they were normally terminating the simulation, but maybe it doesn’t really have to end there; it just won’t be based on the victim’s memories after the 8 minutes are up. It’s essentially a dream from that point on, albeit one based on the foundation that the memories initially provided.

Very nice points man, well said. Your right, the foundation is that they are only “looking around” in someones memory…nothing to do with time travel, whether Colter wants to believe it or not. Now the real question is, how did they get the “brain footage” from the vaporized train passenger? Hmm…

Chirurgie Says:

Good movie and leaves a lot of food for thought if you care to analyse it. Here’s my 2 pence:

At beginning of movie, in this ‘reality 1’ we see Colter 1 (as I will call him) being ‘activated’ for the first time and used to investigate the train crash. Goodwin 1 tells him at some point, ‘everything will be ok’.

When he is on the train, he becomes Colter 2 in reality 2 (ie one in which he is in Sean’s body). Of course he repeats this for (I think 7 times but exact number is uncertain) creating realities for Colter X in reality X.

It is important to note that Colter does not automatically return to the Source Code after 8 minutes. He manages to stay longer when he chased after motion sickness guy and only returns when he dies (run over by the train). Ditto later when he (and Christina) dies by being shot by the terrorist. In rest of realities, he dies at minutes because the bomb on the train kills him.

Each time he dies, his mind returns to reality 1. By end of movie, because he saves the train, Colter Z stays on in this ‘new’ reality Z. Naturally, despite his empty body being terminated back in reality 1, it does not affect reality Z. Should Colter Z die however, he will be dead, ie not returned to Colter 1 (which no longer lives).

So at end of the movie, we see Goodwin Z looking at Colter Z+1’s body, which has yet to be activated in reality Z.

What is the real kicker is that, Colter Z emails Goodwin Z to tell Colter Z+1 in future that ‘everything will be ok’ allowing Colter Z+1 to go try avert whatever disaster he may be asked to do so and then form his own reality Z+1. Remember Goodwin 1 says same to Colter 1? That’s coz reality 1 is NOT the first reality but one that existed after a previous Colter 0 has saved reality 0 and stayed behind in his ‘newly created reality 1’ and presumably told Goodwin 1 the same thing to tell Colter 1

Chirugie, the missing part of your argument is how any of this is anything but a dream scenario being played out in Colter’s brain.

Every time Colter goes back, the only thing happening is that the scientists are triggering what amounts to a dream based on the memories they extracted from dead Sean’s brain.

There is no new reality or alternate timeline being created because there is no time travel involved in the process at all… they’re just manipulating Colter’s brain in a way that looks kind of like that’s what is happening.

As you say, he does not return from the simulation automatically after 8 minutes… as long as he doesn’t die in the simulation, it keeps going. However, after 8 minutes, it’s no longer based on Sean’s memories. It’s just Colter’s brain doing what brains do when you dream.

maybe the concept “time travel” in the h.g. wells format is what is messing everything up. if you are talking about parallel universes or alternate realities, then there would be no classical time travel per se involved because the fixed memory (it is frozen, or outside of the time stream) of the dead passenger, sean, is the entry point into his reality which continued after he died.

imagine there are 11 (arbitrary number, it could be 4 9 or 56743; if we are talking about parallel universes, some people theorize it is an infinite number) “reality” streams we are looking at. each stream represents the consciousness of one individual who is another self 10 times over and each decision they are confronted with has a number of alternate options, which themselves are also influenced by the alternate options of every other person…..an overlapping rhizomatic root system representing an incredibly complex system (what we call “reality”).

each of these 11 people have separate consciousnesses that have developed uniquely according to the realities they are in and decisions they have made, even though they are physically more identical than genetic twins or clones.

in each instance that sean’s residual consciousness as represented by his memory is transposed over or into the consciousness of the host (colter) it is mind traveling not time traveling.

the difference is that the static memory of the dead sean is frozen in time, that “reality” is fixed…its like a bubble, a threshold that was taken out of the time stream by the event of death and then preserved via artificial means. it is time in a test tube and has a finite vector of 8 minutes. even so, the real time in sean’s universe has not stopped…it continues on as it was going to regardless of whether or not he did.

imagine a line ending in a circle….that line is the time stream and the circle is the bubble of sean’s memory/consciousness. beyond that circle is a dotted line representing the continuation of the reality in which that consciousness existed. so that reality is still there, but now he is no longer in it, or, rather, his living consciousness is no longer in it.

okay, so now we switch to colter’s experience for a minute. each time the source code ended (each time the memory was interrupted), colter saw a flash of images very faint, very fast. but in each instance cloud gate and christine were prominent. at the end of the movie, colter and christine find their way to cloud gate and colter stops, stares and says: do you believe in fate? he says this because he remembers the flashes.

what he is seeing is how sean’s reality would have played out if his interaction with the time in his universe had not been interrupted (that is, if the train had not blown up).

the thing to keep in mind is that the two realities are interfacing….there’s colter’s reality & the consciousness he has as a result of that reality and sean’s reality and the residual consciousness that has been contained within that 8 minute vector.

so what happens when two realities’ consciousnesses overlap? if you have two streams of consciousness where one is still operating in the real time of its universe, but within the context of that 8 minute bubble of time, what the hell happens to the external reality stream? internal reality stream is our personal experience of reality; external reality is the universal experience of reality that continues whether or not we do.

so the theory is that when sean’s consciousness is transposed onto colter’s, colter in effect crosses reality streams and in doing so creates an alternate reality stream because different decisions based on different knowledges are made.

the “time reassignment” that rutledge refers to as a parallel reality, what he thinks he means is that the reality is constrained to that test tube, that bubble is the entire universe of that consciousness’s memory….but because colter’s consciousness brings the time factor of his reality and his universe into that 8 minute vector, he brings the capacity to extend that vector past 8 minutes through his capacity to effect different streams through radically different actions making it a truly parallel alternate reality by breaking the test tube open and rejoining the time stream of sean’s external reality….so it’s not time travel per se, but the combination of the transposition or overlap of these two consciousnesses allows sean’s external reality to actualize the reality that would have happened for him if the train had not blown up….this is why colter keeps seeing cloud gate each time he “dies” in sean’s memory.

rutledge is treating the 8 minute vector like its a sandbox program, which it would have been if they had not introduced colter’s “program” (his consciousness) as a variable, effectively creating the equivalent of an “integer overflow” or “buffer overflow”. in any case, colter’s reality stream is the trigger.

oh yeh, forgot to add….it was because colter’s consciousness was anchored in the external reality of his universe that the 8 minute vector was repeating…he knew he had to die in his reality stream in order to break out of the 8 minute bubble…to set his consciousness free to be in the reality of sean and christine. since his was the dominant consciousness, it remained intact in the cross over….he pretty much wiped sean’s memory banks and replaced them with his own.

PSS….and there is no need for time travel to be involved because alternate realities are being created or re-created so all action begins at that point of divergence….those 11 parallel reality streams, think of them as a rhizomatic process where at any juncture another offshoot is created, no time travel necessary, only different choices made….infinite universes where n number of yourself are living out every possibility based on an equally infinite number of variables exist….its mind boggling. time travel implies changing a given reality stream within a time vector that is married to that reality stream…like me going back in my current time stream to prevent hitler being born into the reality of my universe.

thats not the concept that source code is exploring…its exploring the existence of parallel universes and the possibility of creating new reality streams by making different decisions with an infinite number of me’s living out an infinite number of realities being created an infinite number of times by my choosing from an infinite set of variables….and what might happen if the consciousness of one of my me’s crossed over into the reality stream of another, totally different consciousness.

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