For once we’ve got a reasonably intelligent science fiction film rather than an excuse for poorly realised spaceships to dodge and weave about the screen, firing off superweapons and exploding in balls of fire — something that suggests there’s a previously unrecognised mass of oxygen in outer space capable of supporting combustion. Well, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration since space opera is moderately rare in the cinema these days. Hollywood prefers the cheaper version of aliens running around, blowing stuff up on Earth. That makes for better explosions and cheaper CGI. Anyway, Source Code (2011) offers us one of the more coherent efforts at a multiverse story even if it’s more than a little amoral.
No, really? A multiverse story? What’s that?
Well, before we get into spoiler territory, let’s deal with a little of the background. This theory suggests we have more than one reality. Conventional physics says time, gravity and all the other constants move in a straight line. So although each individual makes choices, the outcomes to all the decisions are fixed in the one timeframe. We all live with our triumphs and mistakes equally. But others suggest each decision is like a fork in the road. Sometimes we walk left, sometimes right. So in parallel dimensions, we live out our lives with each set of choices. In the most interesting of these theories, there are an infinite number of possible universes because, over time, millions of us make decisions every day and so the number of possible outcomes expands without limit.
OK, taking this as our base, we assume that, at any one time, there are an infinite number of realities almost exactly the same as ours shading to realities nothing like ours. Dr Rutledge, played with introverted intensity by Jeffrey Wright, has developed a technique for implanting the mind of a man from our reality into the body of a matching man in an alternate reality. If you recall Quantum Leap, we’ve the same convention that Jake Gyllenhaal is transplanted into a different body, but we continue to see Jake Gyllenhaal. This form of the transplant keeps his female fans happy and lasts for exactly eight minutes, at the end of which the host dies (not through the shock of becoming Jake Gyllenhaal, you understand, but in an explosion).
For those who like to play around with the ideas, the death of everyone on the train in this alternate reality prevents there being any contamination of that timeline. Even though the transplanted man may say or do things to disturb the alternate, the effect never leaves the train. Dr Rutledge assumes that if our hero, Colter Stevens played by Jake Gyllenhaal, can identify the bomber in the alternate reality, the same person, driving an identical van with the same number plate can be arrested in our reality and so prevent a second explosion, this time a dirty bomb.
It’s actually better not to think too much about this because the chance of people in alternate realities having the same name or the same licence plate on their vehicles seems remote. I suppose this may occur because the source code recreates a “captured” version of the alternate reality every time the program is run, i.e. it starts with the same parameters every time. If this is the case, the good doctor is creating millions of people in a new reality just so a small number can be blown up on a train and millions can be maimed or killed in Chicago when the dirty bomb explodes. This act of creation and death is justified because it’s expedient to save our people. It would be less immoral if the alternate realities already exist. Now all we’re doing is exploiting what’s inevitable for them, so that we can avoid the same fate.
No matter how it works, in each of the eight minute insertions, Colter Stevens learns about the people in his section of the train. He does this by being prepared to beat them up and, if necessary, shoot to kill. We’re not supposed to care because the people we see only have eight minutes to live. What happens to them is irrelevant in the larger scale of things. In the midst of his investigating, Colter Stevens finds himself attracted to Christina Warren, played by Michelle Monaghan. He decides he should try to save her. This is interesting because, should he succeed, one person surviving the train explosion will produce a major divergence of the realities. That need not concern our timeline, of course. It just means there will never be any chance of going there again as this person now interacts with thousands of people during her lifetime, thereby moving that reality ever further away from ours.
With Colter Stevens dying every eight minutes, he develops psychological problems. Encouraging him to keep going is the pivotal Colleen Goodwin played with quite remarkable sensitivity by Vera Farmiga. Without someone strong in this role, the film would collapse. She’s pitch perfect throughout and gives the film unexpected weight.
This is the stand-out science fiction film so far this year. Jake Gyllenhaal strives valiantly in a slightly thankless role while everyone else, led by Vera Farmiga, rallies round and produces an excellent ensemble piece. It’s a clever script by Ben Ripley allowing the scenario on the train to continuously evolve and expand. For once, Ripley has produced something better than films about sex-crazed aliens, with the whole thing beautifully directed by Duncan Jones, who seems to be making a name for himself rather fast. All in all, Source Code is excellent viewing for anyone who likes science fiction which follows through to the implications of our actions no matter how immoral.
Stop reading here if you don’t want a discussion of what actually happens.
We get this far by suspending disbelief and accept the arrest of the bomber in our timeline. Not being sure how the machine works, we may have to thank Dr Rutledge for destroying Chicago in perhaps more than one hundred other realities depending on how many times Colter Stevens iterates through his eight minute loops. But we are safe. Our Earth’s authorities are delighted with the outcome and can’t wait to use the machine again. Before they embark on new threats, I sincerely hope the Government intends to use the machine to save as many alternate versions of Chicago as possible. This would be the moral step, maximising the benefit of this invention for all realities. We would want other realities to save us if they could, so every Dr Rutledge should be arguing for his Colter Stevens to help others before he helps himself. Sadly, we see Dr Rutledge rubbing his hands and only speculating on what his next triumph will be, confirming the general lack of morality in this project. This is selfishness personified, a sauve qui peut approach to life.
Perhaps anticipating how he will be used and taking everything he has learned about the train, Colter Stevens now knows enough to prevent the train from blowing up. He therefore persuades Colleen Goodwin to send him in one last time to save at least one Chicago. At the end of this eight minutes insertion, she’s to turn off his life support and let him die. This she does. The result is presumably an arrest with her sent off to die in the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico.
After the freeze frame, we are in the alternate reality where Colter Stevens saves Chicago, gets the girl, and sets off for a new life with her. What makes the ending initially appear so pleasing is the text message he sends to Colleen Goodwin in this new reality. For, yes, there’s an identical project in this reality with a version of himself waiting to be deployed to solve a major crime and avert catastrophe. This message primes Colleen Goodwin to encourage Colter Stevens. Not only can he “save the day” no matter where he’s sent, but he can also escape and find a new life for himself in an alternate reality. So each reality may be said to offer Colter Stevens hope, no matter how desperate things may seem. No-one can ask for more than that in any reality. Let’s not go into whether our hero could sustain a convincing impersonation of a man in that reality, once it’s confirmed he can stay with the new identity. There’s also an unresolved paradox because, if Dr Rutledge’s technology depends on the target man dying, he no longer dies, i.e. the transfer should not work.
Now let’s come to the really big question. Colter Stevens knows he displaces the mind of the man in the target body. Let’s say he believes the mind of the teacher is transferred into his body. When he persuades Colleen Goodwin to switch off the life support, he intends Goodwin to kill the teacher so that the replacement is permanent. In my book, that makes Colter Stevens and Colleen Goodwin murderers. However, no matter what he believes about where the mind of the teacher goes, the clear intention is to kill that mind so that our “hero” can have a happy ending. There used to be a morality code in Hollywood. It was known as the Hays Code. Although this was predominantly concerned with sexual and, to some extent, political content, there was a general view that motion pictures should not show criminals benefitting from their crimes. Under the Code, this ending could not have been added after the freeze frame. The rule used to be that criminals should be punished. While this is, no doubt, unacceptably black and white for our relativist age, I’m surprised a stone-cold killer should be shown enjoying his stolen life in the final frames. I’m not sure what message this is sending to our impressionable young.
Source Code (2011) has been shortlisted for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation 2011 and for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation — Long.