Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011)

Without any warning, U.S. Army pilot Captain Colter Stevens wakes up on a Metra commuter train en route to Chicago. He is a bit confused because the last thing he can remember is himself flying on a mission in Afghanistan. Even stranger, everyone around him fails to recognize him, believing him to be a schoolteacher named Sean Fentress. Before he can truly get his bearings, the train explodes, leaving no survivors.

Source Code is a film that certainly doesn’t waste time throwing its audience into the thick of things. Beginning with the protagonist suffering a glamorous, anti-climactic death in a fiery explosion is certainly one effective way to get their attention and leave them wanting to know more. This surprise is reflected in the protagonist himself, who doesn’t have much of an opportunity to properly process what is going on before the inevitable occurs. Because the audience would rightly feel cheated if the film were to end right there, it naturally turns out something grander is afoot.

Colter suddenly finds himself in a cockpit communicating with Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin. Colleen informs Colter that he has been assigned a special mission. An unknown person bombed the train he was just on, and it is his mission to identify them. Believing that he has been placed in a training simulation, Colter goes along with the plan. On his second run, he is able to find the bomb, but the perpetrator eludes him once again.

When parsing this basic premise, the film that immediately springs to mind would be Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day. Released to a tepid reception in 1993, it eventually gained a strong following, and is now considered one of the best films of its decade. In that film, Bill Murray’s character, a cynical weatherman named Phil Connors, found himself reliving the same day again and again. The ramifications of this bizarre situation are explored in a way equal parts comedic and dramatic, and Phil eventually takes advantage of his predicament to better himself. In terms of tone, however, Source Code is far more serious and affords a greater degree of agency to its protagonist. That is, while there was no explanation as to why, exactly, Phil Connors was stuck in an infinite time loop or how he could escape it, Colter has a clear goal: ascertain the bomber’s identity.

Indeed, it is later revealed that the train bombing is, quite literally, a foregone conclusion. The titular Source Code is an experimental machine that recreates the past using the residual, collective memories of the deceased. To use the metaphor the film itself provides, it’s like when small amounts of light remain in a bulb’s filament for a few seconds after severing its power source. The terrorist is the person who turns off the switch while the Source Code captures that small amount of time – or their final eight minutes of life – before the light fully vanishes.

Colter’s arc is an interesting one because he begins the mission with a rather impersonal attitude towards everyone in the reenactment. Upon figuring out everyone within the Source Code is merely a realistic simulation of events that have already transpired, he is solely focused on finding the bomber. However, after it doesn’t take long before he begins truly caring for the people on board the train. In particular, he begins developing feelings for Christina Warren – a friend of Sean Fentress’s. In fact, what Colter goes through is not unlike playing through a video game – particularly one with a good story. You may feel be ambivalent at first, but as the story goes on, you find yourself wanting to guide the protagonist to victory and give everyone a happy ending.

While Groundhog Day is the most obvious point of comparison for Source Code, as the film progresses, you’ll learn of another work with which it has stark parallels: Johnny Got His Gun. While not nearly as bleak as Dalton Trumbo’s novel, it does have a very similar reveal wherein Colter learns he was severely wounded two months ago while in Afghanistan. He is now missing most of his body parts and is only kept alive by a life-support system, although his mind is functioning perfectly. The cockpit and his healthy body are merely self-imposed manifestations for him to make sense of his surroundings.

Similar to Joe Bonham before him, Colter requests to be euthanized, which Dr. Rutledge, the man in charge of the experiment, accepts. However, Dr. Rutledge, intends to keep Colter alive in order for him to continue running missions in the Source Code. It’s an interesting ethical dilemma because while it is callous of Dr. Rutledge to exploit Colter’s situation, he is clearly interested in saving lives. As even ostensibly mature films in the early-2010s featured villains who were evil for its own sake, this was a refreshing change of pace.

Eventually, Colter identifies the terrorist as one Derek Frost. After conveying the terrorist’s license and vehicle registration plates to Rutledge, the authorities stop his next attack. Once that is done, he asks Colleen to send him back one last time. Knowing everything that is to happen, Colter finds the bomb, apprehends Derek Frost, and sets a date with Christina. Once those eight minutes are up, Colleen, sympathetic to Colter’s plight, terminates his life support.

However, in a stunning twist, the world continues to progress beyond eight minutes. It turns out the Source Code doesn’t just accurately simulate the final eight minutes of a person’s life; it has the ability to create alternate timelines. Realizing he is no longer a slave to his destiny, Colter informs the Colleen in this new reality of the machine’s true capabilities before going on a date with Christine.

This moment, while uplifting, causes every single bit of goodwill the film had built up to dissipate instantly. The fatal flaw of Source Code is that it is very much guilty of insisting it has a happy ending when, after giving it a few minutes of thought, you realize it is anything but. Colter just erased an innocent man from existence and took over his life. Sure, Colter is Sean Fentress on a molecular level in this new universe, but it doesn’t change the fact that he knows almost nothing about the man he is replacing. Any time he tries to interact with one of Sean’s acquaintances or even do something as simple as entering a PIN number will be rendered an impossibility. And this isn’t even getting into the morally dubious act of attempting to date and possibly have sex with someone under these false pretenses, which, high concept aside, would be considered rape by deception.

I do give this ending a lot of credit for playing with audience expectations. They were likely expecting Colter to have one final moment of happiness before his inevitable end. The last-minute curveball was thus a clever way to end things on a high note without coming across as especially convoluted. After all, given the Source Code’s capabilities far exceed that of any contemporary technology, it stands to reason it has abilities nobody could have predicted.

However, while I do think endings like this are less obnoxious than instances wherein the author decides to shortchange the protagonist at the last minute, there is no getting around the fact that the uplifting moment on which Source Code concludes is one the film absolutely does not earn. This is a fairly common trapping of anyone dealing with a high concept that implores audiences to take everything at face value. In doing so, many try to sneak in malformed story beats under the pretense that they’re not thematically important. It’s especially egregious in this case because it had so much going for it, yet by not thinking things through, the writer ensured the ultimate payoff is an exercise in unfortunate implications.

In the interest of fairness, I will say writing any kind of story that operates on a high concept is a gamble. For the most part, the point of a high concept is that you’re playing with ideas entirely unique to you. It’s not like committing to a genre, which, depending on its popularity, can already be mapped out for you. You may have your own spin on it, but you’re starting off with a general outline right out of the box. When it comes to high concepts, on the other hand, everything must be built from the ground up, and there isn’t an outline to fall back on because it’s not as though writing experts can scan your brain and come up with a personalized list of dos and don’ts for your novel ideas. Nonetheless, Source Code is a prime example of how badly a writer can mess up an intriguing premise when they fail to think through their implications.

All in all, Source Code is quite a tough sell. On the surface, it would appear to be serviceable as an experience for which you can turn off your brain and enjoy, but the problem is that it doesn’t have such a luxury. This is because it puts itself in the unenviable position of touting itself as the thinker’s science-fiction thriller when thinking is precisely what causes its foundation to crumble into dust. Consequently, while Source Code may have been acclaimed upon its 2011 release, in the grand scheme of things, it really has not aged well. It’s very much the kind of film that seems impressive when it’s actively dazzling you with its twists, but otherwise manages to be forgettable or memorable for the wrong reasons once the novelty wears off.

Adjusted Score: 5/10

8 thoughts on “Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011)

  1. Yeah, that ending just sucks. You’re right in writing that whatever goodwill this movie has managed to garner earlier simply dissipates in the face of this blatant disregard for logic, ethics, and everything in between. A bit like Looper, really, it seems Source Code somehow has lost its self-awareness before it ended.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Indeed it did. It’s one of those things I have to admit I didn’t catch onto how bad it was the first time I watched it, but after hearing out the arguments made against it, I realize I’d been had. It really is a lousy ending that is rife with horrifying implications for everyone involved.

      I would actually make the argument that Looper comes out slightly ahead of Source Code if for no other reason than because it sticks with its largely unworkable ideas for good and for ill. Source Code all too often tries to have its cake and eat it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There was a big fuss about it when it hit the cinemas, but I really didn’t make much of it at the time. And still don’t now. Curse you Source Code for haunting my existence! But, wow, I can’t believe it’s almost 10 years ago. My 20s sure did fly by.

    Looper came out the same year and I enjoyed that one a bit more. And Prometheus. Although I didn’t rate that. 2012 was a busy sci-fi year, it seems.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, it’s one of those “good in the moment; not so much in hindsight” things. It sure feels like a long time ago, though; I actually had to look it up to make sure it came out in 2012 (and I was surprised to learn it actually came out in 2011). The 2010s really wasn’t a good decade for science-fiction, but before 2015, it felt like they were still trying, so I find films like this more tolerable than stuff like Ex Machina or Upgrade.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Source Code was my first movie to explore the whole “repetitive” narrative loop and, back when I first saw it, I found it fun to watch. Since, I’ve seen many other movies with this structure, including Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow. I can definitely understand what you mean though. When you really look into the resolution, the movie does have solid flaws that don’t allow the whole thing to hold up. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah, I’m just going to say it; you didn’t get off to a good start with that one. The first work I experienced with a repetitive loop was Majora’s Mask, but the first film I saw with one was Groundhog Day, which is a personal favorite of mine. Source Code was a nice try, but Edge of Tomorrow (and, by extension, its source material, All You Need Is Kill) was a far more sophisticated take on the idea. Source Code is what happens when you insist a horrifying resolution is a happy ending. The results can be quite appalling, no?

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Listening/reading log #18 (March 2021) | Everything is bad for you

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