By Eric Plaag
Imagine that you are an Army pilot named Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), and you’re taking a nap. Your last memory is of dropping off fellow soldiers from a helicopter somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan, but when you awake from your nap, you’re on a speeding commuter train just outside of Chicago. Across from you is a beautiful woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) who seems powerfully familiar to you and seems to know you, yet when she speaks to you, she calls you “Sean.” Worse, when you catch your reflection in the window glass, you see another man. Worst of all, precisely eight minutes into your confusion, the entire train blows up, thereby catapulting you neurologically into a darkened chamber that a mysterious voice calls “Beleaguered Castle.” Then Air Force Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) starts barking orders and initiation sequences at you, trying to get you back on track.
It’s a hell of a set-up, and one that made me think that perhaps I’d been terribly wrong about Source Code when I first saw the trailer in March 2011. At that time, I turned to my wife and predicted that it would be a giant, steaming pile of celluloid manure. Yet everything about those first twenty minutes—the long chopper sequence gradually leading us to the speeding train (as if our consciousness is slowly catching up with our location), Don Burgess’s jaggedy camera work that also seems infused with the simultaneous haziness and glaring clarity of a dream, and Duncan Jones’s careful, precise direction—convinced me that there might be something to love about this picture. Gyllenhaal and Monaghan positively bristle with energy on the screen, too, allowing me at first to embrace the film’s through line of Stevens’s secondary motives that become primary by film’s end. In short, all seemed as though it was going swimmingly.
Then the science got in the way.
Don’t misunderstand me when I say that. If you know me, you also know that I’m a pretty out-there kind of guy, open to considering all kinds of wacky explanations for all kinds of weird unexplained phenomena. For these reasons, the general hook of Source Code appeals to me on many levels. We learn fairly quickly that Stevens is in fact a dead man, or as good as one, having been severely wounded during that last helicopter mission. The conniving genius (Jeffrey Wright) behind the military’s supersecret project, the Source Code, explains that Stevens is the beta test in an effort to harness and employ two recent discoveries: 1) When we die, our neurological activity continues for a brief period of time, much as an extinguished light bulb continues to glow, and 2) within this glow lie the preceding eight minutes of a person’s short-term memory. Although it is never directly explained to us, presumably the government has hooked up Stevens’s life-supported brain to Sean’s afterglow and memory, thereby giving Stevens a direct conduit into an eyewitness account of the events immediately preceding the train’s explosion. If they can find the train’s bomber embedded in Sean’s sense data from his last eight minutes of life, then maybe they can find the bomber who has threatened to set off a second bomb (this time nuclear) in Chicago.
Understandably, Stevens is furious that those he promised to serve have manipulated his shell of a body in this fashion, all the while telling his estranged father (an off-screen Scott Bakula) that Stevens is dead. Desperate to free himself from this interminable neurological prison, Stevens agrees to follow the program, hoping that he’ll be terminated in exchange for his service. But he is also haunted by images during his “jumps” that align with nothing he has ever experienced, either as Stevens or during the last eight minutes of Sean’s life, and eventually it becomes clear that Sean never experienced these fleeting moments during his real life, either. Prompted by this confusion, and intrigued by Christina’s overwhelming familiarity to him, Stevens begins to craft a theory about alternate universes and the consequences of playing unethically with time, memory, and fate. When he puts his plan into motion, with the tacit approval of Captain Goodwin, Stevens proves that there is more to the military’s experiment than they understand.
As Fox Mulder would say, this is where I want to believe. I’m one of those folks who ponders for hours at a time how it is that some people we meet for the first time can seem like old friends and know things about us that they could not possibly have had access to beforehand, while friends and colleagues we’ve known for much of our lives can still seem to be total strangers when it comes to actually connecting with us. I’ve weighed so many possible explanations for these kinds of strange experiences that I’ve lost count. Alternate universes? Soul families? Past lives? Temporal memory impressions on the fabric of time, whereby our older selves have sent messages back to our younger selves? I’m open to considering it all. And yet, when I watched Source Code, my bullshit detector went off the scale.
At one point, the Source Code program’s director explains to Stevens that what they are trafficking in is time reassignment, not time travel, although I’m not sure this is a very good metaphor coming from a guy who presumably is paid a lot of money to be a lot more precise than that. If the government program has it right, and all they’re tapping into is the afterglow of residual neurological energy and the sense data of someone’s last eight minutes, all with the goal of extracting additional data that can be used to alter external events that have not yet happened, how is it that Stevens can wander about the train, interacting with people he cannot otherwise see from the seat they know Sean was sitting in when he died? If Sean never saw those other passengers and crew during those last eight minutes, then they would not exist in the “file” of Sean’s final memories. And while I’m all for some sort of Gestalt Theory explanation, whereby Stevens’s brain uses the known sense data to create closure through reasonable fabrications of “experience” during his travels through the train, none of these experiences would be sufficient to lead to the bomber’s identity, rationale, and detailed plan for the second bomb, all of which Stevens manages to miraculously extract. Moreover, Stevens’s manipulations of these sense data within his own brain would not alter the past events or permit him to alter future ones in a direct way (beyond the extraction and delivery of information to his handlers), since there is no “real world” in which the events are happening for him. Yet Source Code, to the hackneyed, cloyingly sweet end, insists otherwise.
Perhaps I am taking Source Code too seriously, just as I did when I saw 2010, Back to the Future, and that ridiculous Christopher Reeve piece of schlock that made all the girls swoon when I was a teenager (Somewhere in Time). Perhaps I am not Hollywood’s target audience for this film, which presumably consists of people who like seeing the same explosion from twenty-some different angles, a hot male and/or female lead, and a time travel plot device that sounds smart even if it’s really not. When I’m honest about it, though, it’s not the idea of time travel or time manipulation or “time reassignment” that bothers me. Or explosions. Or hot male/female leads. Another Gyllenhaal vehicle—Donnie Darko—does a remarkably deft and admirable job of using all of these devices AND working within the rules of its own universe to produce a plausible, thought-provoking, and truly frightening mindfuck of a story. In fact, the director’s cut even comes with an on-screen philosophical manual, which I still wish someone would publish. Nor are questions about technological intervention into human neurology and its manipulation a problem for me, since Vanilla Sky remains high on my list of films that stick to the rules (and the ribs), even in the midst of mindblowing chaos.
No, the problem lies in Source Code’s insistence on being gimmicky and—as so often happens these days—letting the love story and its fruition obliterate any sense of plot/story continuity that made the project appealing in the first place. While the idea of alternate universes and the inclusion of a subtle nod to that rip-roaringly fun show Quantum Leap sound clever, Source Code fails to deliver on the most basic of its premises and promises. Now that I have been educated by Source Code’s writers on how the universe works, perhaps there was a good reason I thought this film was going to be terrible when I watched the trailer in the theater for the first time in March 2011. Perhaps my May 14, 2011, self was sending me a gentle warning about what to expect. And if I’ve learned anything from Source Code, even if it doesn’t make any sense scientifically, perhaps I should have listened.
Theaters, 2 out of 5 stars