Duncan Jones’ impressive 2009 science fiction film Moon obsessed on the notion of identity.
Set on a sterile, high-tech moon base, the tale involved a lonely astronaut (played by Sam Rockwell) who was not really who he believed he was. In fact, his identity had been farmed out to a global corporation and shared amongst a team of human clones who only “dreamed” they were really human.
Both understated and haunting, Moon was a cerebral exercise that, in both visualization and mood, echoed such classic 1960s outer space efforts such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969).
In 2011’s exhilarating sci-fi thriller Source Code, director Jones dramatizes another tale (this time by writer Ben Ripley) about a location where identity and technology intersect.
In this case, that juncture is a secret military project “Beleaguered Castle” (named after the card game for one…) that boasts the capacity to create closed “parallel realities.”
It’s not actually time travel the audience is informed, but rather “time re-assignment.”
In particular, Afghanistan veteran Colter Steven (Jake Gyllenhaal) is sent into the final eight minutes of another person’s life to…investigate the environs and solve a devastating crime. Colter can experience those eight minutes as many times as he needs to, and do virtually anything to anyone to accomplish his task. In the real world, we are told, his actions are immaterial, relative only to the pocket universe he inhabits on each eight-minute sortie.
As the film commences, Colter finds himself on board a moving train and conversing with a lovely young woman, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan). But Colter doesn’t know her, and when he spies his own reflection in the window glass, Colter doesn’t recognize the face staring back at him. Christina seems to think that Colter is actually Scott Fentress, a school teacher and friend.
And then a bomb blows up on the train, killing Christina and all the other passengers.
But Colter doesn’t die. Instead, he awakens in a strange, dilapidated military capsule. There, he communicates with an official named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) who explains to him that he must complete an important mission on the train, lest a second terrorist attack involving a dirty bomb prove successful. The authorities must know the identity of the bomber. Colter must determine it.
Again and again, Colter goes back into the train (into the source code) to experience those final eight minutes of Scott’s life.
In one go-round, Colter attempts to get a hold of a gun, but is apprehended by the authorities on the train. In another experience, he follows a suspicious-seeming man of Middle Eastern appearance off the commuter train and into a station bathroom, but learns his quarry isn’t the bomber.
After the first several “repeats” of these similar eight minute scenarios, veteran sci-fi watchers may get a sinking feeling. They may fear they are watching one of those Star Trek: The Next Generation “time loop” episodes (“Cause and Effect”) in which events repeat and repeat until the tech-puzzle is solved, and space/time is restored.
But about mid-way through Source Code, the film takes a daring turn entirely consistent with Duncan Jones’ protean film canon, when Colter learns more about who he is, where he is, and what, precisely he can and can’t do in those eight minutes.
Suddenly, the events on the train become a compelling, fast-moving, two-track affair. Not only must Colter identify the mad bomber (and the location of the bomb), he must investigate himself and Beleaguered Castle too, using Michelle’s cell phone and Internet connection. What Colter discovers is, much like the climactic revelation of Moon, both haunting and emotional.
Back at the capsule, the authority behind Beleaguered Castle is a no-nonsense man named Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), who insists that Colter is “just a hand on a clock,” and threatens the young man with the equivalent of perpetual servitude. He also keeps telling Colter that his experiences on the train are “only a shadow” and cannot effect this universe.
Rutledge talks a great deal about Quantum Physics and “parabolic calculus” and in a nod to that subject matter, Scott Bakula — star of Quantum Leap — plays a crucial (voice) supporting role in the film.
In many ways, Source Code reminded me of the brilliant low-budget science fiction film Primer (2004), which mapped out overlapping time-lines in a consistent, crisp, profound and sometimes maddening way. While watching that film, I really felt the need to take notes and watch scenes more than once. But I also felt amply rewarded for putting in the energy to do so because every narrative thread fit together, and there was nary a wasted scene or moment. Source Code is a bit more commercial in conception and execution than Primer but also unceasingly smart. In fact, I suspect that the ending of the film is so smart that it could easily be interpreted in more than one way.
If you don’t want to know anything further about Source Code’s denouement, I suggest you stop reading this review here, and simply see the film. If you like good science fiction thrillers, you won’t be disappointed.
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If you do want to know more, here’s my interpretation of the film’s finale, which makes the happy ending a little more intriguing and far more palatable.
The key to understanding Source Code, in some ways, comes down to a line of dialogue from the film’s mad bomber, an anti-government domestic terrorist named Derek Frost. Derek tells Colter at one point that “The world is Hell, but we have a chance to start over in the rubble. But first there has to be rubble.”
After Derek is apprehended and Colter completes his mission, he goes back on the train one more time with the help of Goodwin…and he does so to see if there is, indeed, a chance to start over in the rubble, even after the end of the eight minute span.
In other words, Colter tests a theory. If he captures Derek Frost and averts the detonation of the bomb in the parallel reality…will said parallel reality continue after those brief eight minutes, striking off into a new path? Or will it stop, because that’s as long as it has ever lasted in previous iterations (wherein the explosion was not prevented and the bomber not captured)?
The answer to that key question of a universe’s longevity is actually encoded in the almost subliminal imagery flashed across the screen each time Colter goes back inside “the source code” and alternate universe.
The image I write of is easily mistaken for a visual distortion or special effect, but it’s not. It’s a reflection of a real location that Colter visits in the film’s valedictory scene.
And since Colter sees that location (which he could not have first-hand knowledge of…) virtually every time he travels through the time re-assignment vortex, the answer to his fate is pre-ordained. He can extend that universe.
And indeed, in the end of the film he does just that. He builds a new life out of the rubble of his old life (and death), leaving behind a career of obligation and duty that ultimately separated him from his loved ones. This time, he chooses simple human connection; a connection, specifically, to Christina.
But here’s the thing. This is not, apparently, a conventional happy ending that overwrites the universe of the film’s running time. In our “consensus” reality, the train bomb still goes off (though the dirty bomb detonation is averted thanks to Colter), and Christina and the other passengers still die a horrible, unnecessary death.
And Colter is still trapped in Beleaguered Castle, in perpetual servitude to the less-than-pleasant Dr. Rutledge. That universe there will continue to go on as Colter knew it (and as we know it, as viewers of the film).
However, Colter continues to exist in an alternate universe of his own making; one that picks up after he saves the day by averting the train bomb. This is an entirely new track, but not the track we have watched throughout the film.
It it would be easy to conclude that somehow Colter’s actions changed the “real world,” when I would argue that’s perhaps not the case. His actions seem only to change the different reality in which Colter dwells after the last eight minute sortie. But after all, that’s enough, right?
Critics have compared Source Code to Ground Hog’s Day (1993), but there’s nothing about the premise played for laughs here. Instead, the film asks the audience to consider what it would mean to have less than a minute left to live.
Could a whole universe unfold in that minute? A whole lifetime?
I admire how Jones escorts us through Colter’s last instant with Christine and than poetically elongates it, creating a kind of perfect bubble of human happiness in the instant before…well, what exactly? Destruction? Conception?
It’s a lyrical and emotional ending, and Duncan Jones is good at mining the film for strong emotional content. Gyllenhaal gives a strong performance too, in a role that, in some ways, proves highly reminiscent of his work in Donnie Darko (2001).
Source Code is one of those unexpected and rare treasures that starts out with a compelling premise, and then grows more and more compelling the longer it continues. Source Code’s intelligence and sense of heart sort of sneak up on you. By the time the film reaches its lyrical conclusion, you may be surprised at just how emotionally-invested you feel in the characters and the journey they have undertaken.
Like human beings at their very finest, Colter makes “every second count” in Source Code, and director Duncan Jones follows suit with a sci-fi film as thrilling and passionate as any I’ve seen in a good, long time.