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, on a molecular level, Sean Fentress 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 interacts 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 copulate with someone under these false pretenses.
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. In some respects, Source Code ended up foreshadowing what would become the defining flaw of screenwriters in the latter half of the 2010s. As the decade went on, writers would develop a very bad habit of forcing audiences to accept their ideas for good and for ill. This led to countless fiats where you got the sense these writers’ concepts worked not because they thought them through, but because they insisted they did and hoped by repeating themselves often enough, the audience would just give up and accept them. In that regard, Source Code actually has much in common with District 9 in how both films foreshadowed issues that would get out of hand in the coming years.
It’s a true shame because, unlike District 9, Source Code had the potential to be good. Neil Blomkamp’s problem was that the concepts he came up with for his inaugural effort had zero internal logic and, consequently, were so fundamentally flawed, he completely doomed his project from the outset. This isn’t the case with Source Code; in fact, I actually give screenwriter Ben Ripley a lot of credit for rebelling against the tropes that would cause science fiction to become a quagmire of anti-intellectualism in the years to follow. Unlike Mr. Blomkamp and the like, Mr. Ripley earnestly wanted to tell a story rather than rant and rave on a soapbox for ninety minutes about how bad science and humanity is, which, even considering the immensely flawed execution of his ideas, makes him more respectable than a sizable portion of his contemporaries.
Whether or not that actually makes Source Code worth seeing, however, is another question. On the surface, Source Code 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