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Bored with the mindless pastimes of summer? Brain fried by the sun’s rays? If you’re looking for something to awaken those hibernating brain cells, Source Code can provide a good jolt. Released on video in the midst of light summer blockbusters, this sci-fi thriller is packed with action and suspense, but otherwise stands out from the crowd as far too mentally stimulating to belong.
Source Code grips viewers from the opening moments, and, thanks to its thematic and story complexity, doesn’t let go even after the movie ends. But what you’ll be thinking about, long after this film concludes, will include profanity and a dangerously flawed ideology concerning human life and death.
Colter Stevens is understandably confused when he finds himself on a Chicago commuter train and has no recollection of how he got there. Even worse, the lovely passenger sitting opposite him keeps calling him Sean. A few minutes of floundering later, Colter encounters the biggest shock of all when he looks in a bathroom mirror and sees the face of a different man staring back at him. Colter barely has time to digest the situation before the train explodes and he is blown up. Or is he?
As if coming out of a nightmare, Colter “awakens” from this experience to find himself in a dark chamber, with a video monitor his only connection to the outside world. That world is also inexplicable to Colter as he tries to figure out what is happening to him. He gets little help from the woman soldier whose voice comes through a speaker. When she appears on the monitor, Colter initially has no idea who she is. Though he does eventually recall that her name is Goodwin, the memory does little to explain Colter’s situation.
Director Duncan Jones does a good job ensuring that viewers empathize with Colter, as we are as lost as he is for most of the film, discovering the reality of his situation only as he does. The most importunate reality is that Colter, a U. S. Army helicopter pilot, is engaged in a mission to subvert a terrorist attack. The mission makes little sense to him, however, as it entails that he return to the commuter train for the same eight minutes of time that preceded an already completed terrorist bombing. His assignment? To identify the train bomber so that the perpetrator’s future planned attacks can be prevented.
At first, Colter assumes that the train experience must be some sort of simulation. He soon discovers that he is instead experiencing the leftover eight minutes of memory that, according to scientist Dr. Rutledge, remains after one dies—in this case, the memory of one of the train bombing victims. Thus, the first of many ethical questions is raised, as Colter is apparently embodying and masquerading as a dead man, thanks to Dr. Rutledge’s “Source Code” technology. Yet, the issue is far from simple, as Colter maintains his own personality and consciousness while living in the body of Sean and accessing at least some of the deceased man’s mind, through his memory. Are you thinking yet? Brace yourself, there’s more.
[SPOILER WARNING FOR ALL THAT FOLLOWS] After a great deal of frustrated pleading and investigation during his repeated eight minutes on the train, Colter finally discovers that he himself is “dead,” with only part of his brain remaining functional. He was on a military mission in Afghanistan when he went down in a firefight that took his limbs and almost his life. The arms and legs that he and the viewers see are, Colter is told, only a manifestation on his part that helps him make sense of his reality. Furthermore, Colter’s mind is only working because he is being sustained on life support.
The problems with Source Code’s ethical foundation emerge in this and the related issues that arise in the film’s complex plot. Colter is referred to as “dead,” though at least part of his brain is still clearly alive and active. Therefore, his life hasn’t actually ended at all, and he is very much alive as demonstrated throughout the film. Colter longs for reconciliation with his father, he falls in love with a stranger on a train, and he yearns to save her life, as well as the lives of the other train passengers. Desires of a dead man? I don’t think so, and, for the most part, the filmmakers seem to agree.
But if the film is demonstrating that Colter isn’t actually dead, what defense is there for Goodwin when she intentionally terminates Colter’s life support? In the story, however, Goodwin’s act is clearly supposed to be an admirable, even heroic one, as she mercifully ends the experimentation on Colter. Colter is otherwise destined for a future of being kept alive only to experience death again and again in his mind as part of the ongoing investigations using the Source Code. In her attempt to end Colter’s life, Goodwin’s intentions are commendable—she wishes to end the suffering of a dissenting victim. Nevertheless, Goodwin is guilty of a mercy killing, which is just that—a killing.
Added to the moral and ethical concerns surrounding Colter are the issues raised by the hundreds of people who die in the train bombing. As Colter repeatedly experiences eight minutes with the passengers, he gets to know them and is particularly drawn to Christina, the woman who believes Colter is her friend, Sean. It is doubtful, given the context and brevity of Colter’s time with Christina that his “love” for her is of a lasting variety, but he is drawn to her enough to want, desperately, to save her life.
In this desire, Colter sets a heroic example, as he has a powerful drive to protect and serve the innocent. Equally admirable is the value that Colter seems to put on human life, demonstrated through his change in behavior as soon as he realizes that the passengers are real people. He immediately becomes polite, kind, and understanding to all but those he suspects are the bombers.
Yet Dr. Rutledge makes it clear to Colter that he couldn’t save Christina and the other bombing victims even if he were allowed to (rescuing the passengers is not Colter’s assignment). For Christina and the others do not, according to Rutledge, actually exist any longer. They all died on the train, and nothing Colter does can change that. As the story continues, Colter questions Rutledge’s position and begins to believe that he can affect the lives of the train passengers, even that he can prevent their deaths. Such an effort would only be successful if there is, as this film ultimately proposes, one or more alternate reality.
Jones has said that this film is not a “time travel” story, yet it ultimately proves to be just that. Though Colter is revisiting the past through the memory of a dead man, he lives in it, can change it, and even thereby have an effect on the future. While entertaining to imagine, the options concerning reality that Source Code explores offer a past, present, and future without God—as the film makes only a halfhearted attempt to replace Him with an ill-defined idea of “fate.” If accurate, such a reality (or realities) would offer far more problems than this film recognizes, as it only begins to tap into the issues that arise, and leaves more than one disturbingly unexplained.
The heroism of Colter, for example, is a victim of the thematic twists involving alternate realities. The value for human life that Colter earlier demonstrates falls to the wayside when it concerns himself and potential suffering, as he asks Goodwin to terminate his life following his last attempt to save the train victims. In addition, a close look at the supposed happy ending of the film leaves one staring at a consummate liar, as Colter blithely commits to a future of masquerading as someone else with a woman who believes he is her friend, whom she is growing to love.
If not already complex enough, the plot takes another complicated turn when we see that, even while Colter’s mind is living in the body of Sean, Colter’s body and apparently some part of his brain activity, dependent on life-support, also exists and goes on living. But what, then, happens or has happened to the real Sean? And what, really, has happened to Colter? Where are their souls?
There seems to be no end to the unanswered questions raised by Source Code’s premise, but that should be the expected result of any attempt to undermine the world as God has defined it. The human soul does not seem to be a concern for Source Code, or it is lost somewhere in the labyrinth of the film’s hazy definition of life—of existence itself.
The thematic knots that strangle Source Code are particularly disappointing, since other aspects of the film are positive. The acting, particularly from star Jake Gyllenhaal, is superb and the film has production values to match. For an action movie, the violence is also surprisingly light. Most of it is confined to intense, but brief fist-fights and tackling (which Colter is a little too eager to dish out). The one shooting scene avoids showing much graphic detail. The goriest moment is actually not violent at all, as we are shown Colter’s maimed body—a sight that the squeamish will want to avoid.
What benefits there may be from the limited violence and high production quality are offset through the film’s heavy use of offensive language. Among these words are plenty of profanities, as characters misuse and curse with the names of God and Jesus. Interestingly, the language used in this film is a revealing reflection of the ideology the story communicates. The world suggested in Source Code casts aside a reality of individually-created human souls, endowed with a purpose by their Creator. The resulting universe would have no reason not to defame the name of the Diety. Yet, by hearing the actors so frequently misuse God’s name, astute viewers are ironically reminded of the reality in which we actually reside.
Entertaining? Yes. The imaginative sci-fi basis of Source Code is a remarkable manifestation of creativity that results in suspense and surprise at every turn. But those who watch this film should be careful that they do not, even for a moment, sit back and passively enjoy the ride. Turn off your brain at your peril, for the messages and profanities in this film are far too easy, yet lethal, to absorb.