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.