Skip to content

Science as fiction: Source Code

December 13, 2011


Must. Not. Overthink. Plot.

I have seen Source Code twice and the second time alienated me a lot more than the first – when I happily ignored all of its scientific nonsense and accepted it as a straight and above-average ‘alternate realities’ fantasy adventure . I also made the mistake of watching the film the second time with a scientist so the film’s throwaway references to Quantum Physics (in relation to alternate realities) and Hyperbolic Calculus could be less easily ignored. The result is that by over-thinking the logic of the plot or the ‘science’ in the sci-fi, the film was pretty much ruined for me. That said it was critically acclaimed (92% on rottentomatoes) and is generally considered a cerebral and challenging film.

It is often said that science fiction implies an ‘anything goes’ suspension of logic and disbelief. But as a regular sci-fi viewer I just can’t! In the case of sci fi novels and films I need them to set up a believable world or at least obey their own logic. Even if it’s all made up and wildly fantastic. I don’t need real-world Reality, just to be convinced within the film’s universe. For it to make sense. And this is where Source Code failed me.

As an undemanding straight action thriller, Source Code is brisk and exciting. The leads are appealing and attractive. The looping 8 minutes-to-find-the bomb-and the terrorist plot is surprisingly deftly handled (the train blows up in exactly the same way every 8 minutes or so which could have been – repetitive), interspersed with our hero’s (Jake Gyllenhaal as brave helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens) often moving ‘real-life’ attempts to make sense of his predicament (he ultimately finds out he is long dead), his consciousness’ construction of an imaginary capsule and a physical body, and his ‘relationship’ with his handler, played by the convincing and sympathetic Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). These elements, suggestive of the remains of Stevens’ own internal world, are perhaps the most interesting in the film.

The ‘source code’ invention allows Stevens to inhabit the consciousness of also-dead nice-guy schoolteacher Shaun who died in the explosion. Stevens’ mission: to look around for clues from Shaun’s perspective (his brain has retained his final 8 minutes) and in so doing find the bomber and prevent a second nuclear bomb from exploding in Chicago (a matter of hours). Of course questions of how Stevens can explore regions of the train and even leave the train when Shaun had never done so are best ignored – else your head might explode.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, ultimately Stevens locates and thwarts the terrorist, manages to ‘change’ the outcome of the explosion and sends an sms ‘back in time’ to Goodwin informing her that the source code invention can actually change reality itself. Now earlier in the film the inventor explicitly tells Stevens that source code is not time travel; that no-one on the train can be saved; that they all died and essentially it is only through the 8 minute memories of one survivor (how did they find Shawn’s intact, still-buzzing-but-dead brain in an inferno?) that they can access and ‘search’ for the bomber. But by noticing that things change subtly every time he relives Shaun’s final 8 minutes, Stevens realizes reality can be changed.

Another distracting and predictable plot feature is Stevens/Shaun’s rapid romance with cutesy/twinkly train-friend Christina (Michelle Monaghan). After apparently boring poor Shaun with tales of her office romance and unfulfilling life-path for countless commutes, all it takes is Shaun to butch up and behave like a violent lunatic for Christina to fall for him – in under 8 minutes! I can tell you, with 8 minutes counting down you wouldn’t catch me flirting with a passenger. Also, in the ‘real world’ the military/scientific experts refuse to just simply summarize for poor, dead, confused Captain Stevens what the hell has happened to him. Which means he wastes a lot of time asking questions and smsing his dad and searching the internet for info about shadowy military research groups. When he could have just been debriefed, as it were, in under 10 minutes and sent on his way to save the world.

So, despite creating a perfectly ‘plausible’ scientific ‘reality’ in which Stevens is able to access Shaun’s 8 minutes, and save a possible future event, the film end ups with Stevens continuing to inhabit i.e. take over teacher Shaun’s body and life and exit the train, after the 8-minute window is up. He has changed reality and sent a sms ‘through time’ and into an alternate reality. The train did not blow up; he got the girl; he somehow became Shaun in this reality. How could he have done that? Shaun died. He has no body in any reality. (I think.)

And just like that the film’s own science/logic was destroyed. Of course the whole geeky point of this film is that one can engage in mind-bending alternate reality theorizing to one’s heart’s content. But it bugs me anyway dammit. The film should logically have ended with the city saved, with Shaun and Christina and everyone on the train dying, and with his plug being pulled by the nice Goodwin back at the secret military base.

None of this was an issue in director Duncan Jones’ first film Moon with an excellent Sam Rockwell. Moon was more clunky and amateurish-looking, but it had mood, heart and depth. It was in its way more philosophically provocative. All of the faults in Source Code, apart from plot logic, can ultimately be found in the film’s glossy, slick big budget-ness. The handsome hero, the cute girl, the father-son conflict, the villainous scientist/inventor, the warm-hearted and morally upright woman soldier who mercifully pulls the plug on a tortured Stevens (well a bit of him): Dumb Hollywood Blockbuster 101.


From → film reviews, Movies

  1. pallasathena1 permalink

    Thanx for a hilarious review and attempt at making alternative universes and time travel comprehensible to the rest of us poor mortals. I felt just like Captain Janeway, with a headache coming on just taking about the subject. Keep up the good work

  2. Konrad permalink

    I’m the scientist mentioned in the first paragraph; actually I rather enjoyed this movie, at least up to the kiss scene where they should have just scrolled the credits and congratulated themselves on an above par action sci-fi. Up to that point, the plot holes were way less glaring than what we mostly see in this genre. But unfortunately they spoiled it by going all mystical/nonsensical on our asses in the last few minutes. Let me put it this way – you watch a traditional heist movie and it gets up to the scene where they are about to celebrate making it out safely with the loot, only to find that the suitcase is empty. At this point they can scroll the credits, but suppose instead the hero pulls out a magic wand, or a Disney fairy appears, and the missing loot gets magically reconstituted. It doesn’t fit – Disney magic is not part of the heist genre, and (one would have hoped) mumbo-jumbo mysticism shouldn’t be part of the sci-fi genre. It’s a pity it so often is. Sigh.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: