Saturday I saw Source Code, an entertaining action/thriller/science fiction. The film was quite enjoyable, with fantastic performances from the cast, Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, Michelle Monaghan, and Jeffrey Wright, and a well-paced, well-structured story from director Duncan Jones and writer Ben Ripley. I would go so far as to state that this film was brilliant, and I would like to break down why that is. Of course, to do so, I need to discuss elements of the story that would be better read after having watched the movie, so consider this your spoiler warning. If you have not seen the film, stop reading now.
The opening credits are displayed over a running sequence of fly-overs of the city of Chicago, accompanied by a score that is generically common in the thriller genre. The story begins when the protagonist, Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), awakens on a commuter train outside Chicago. In the seat across from him sits Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), a friend who recognizes him as “Sean,” and immediately engages him in conversation, telling him she took his advice. But Captain Stevens does not recognize his companion or his surroundings; when he first awakes on the train he knows as little about what is happening to him as does the audience. At one point he notices a brief reflection in the window of the train that startles him, and he excuses himself and walks to the lavatory, where he discovers that his reflection is that of another man. Somewhat panicked, Stevens spends eight minutes looking for clues as to what is happening to him, until the train abruptly explodes, killing everyone aboard.
Stevens then awakes in a small capsule, strapped into a seat that appears similar to a pilot’s chair. He is confused and disoriented–as is the audience by this point–and as he attempts to loosen his seat belt, a voice over the intercom keeps hailing him. Stevens finally establishes communication with Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who puts him through a series of tests to help orient him to what is happening. She tells him that a train exploded just after 7:45 AM outside of Chicago this morning, and that using a revolutionary quantum computer technology, he is serving his country by entering the mind and/or memories of one of the passengers who died aboard the train. This is apparently possible due to a mystery of the human mind, in that there is an “afterglow”–an effective window of eight minutes where electrical activity is still possible and present within the neural pathways. Later in the film, more details regarding this process emerge, though they are never explicitly tackled as part of the story. Rather they function as an implicit element, assumed to work for any number of reasons.
Goodwin and the team monitoring this computer “source code” technology need Stevens as their operative. He must learn who planted the explosives in the train in order to track down the bomber and stop him from additional planned attacks on the city that were threatened for later that day. In these early moments, though, Stevens is confused and cannot remember how he got into this “capsule,” where his unit in Afghanistan is, or anything immediately before he woke up on the train. His identity, however, and his memories before the immediate events that would have led him to this current situation are all intact.
Prompted by an agitated Doctor Routledge (Jeffrey Wright), Goodwin sends Captain Stevens “back in,” and he wakes up in the same moment as before. This time, having a greater sense of his bearings on the train, Stevens tries to find information about himself and what happened to his unit in Afghanistan, in addition to interacting with other individuals on the train in order to discover the location of the bomb and the identity of the bomber. Each time he goes back, he begins at the same moment and has eight minutes before the bomb explodes. Over the course of several trials, each of which end with the same result (the bombing of the train), the surface of the plot seems to suggest that the source code technology allows Stevens to enter the memories of someone on the train. However, more details become apparent to Stevens with each “trip” as the story progresses, all of which suggest there is more at work within the process. For example, Stevens begins to suspect that he is dead, and confronts Goodwin about it. Both she and Doctor Routledge are reluctant to give Stevens any immediate details, claiming several times that all other aspects of the mission are “irrelevant.” But Stevens can’t let it go, and finally uncovers that his body experienced an accident that no one could survive. His brain is hooked up to electrodes that allow his neural map to be read and utilized by the source code.
When that proverbial cat is out of the bag is when, for me, this movie goes from being a decent action/scifi/thriller to an almost brilliant, multi-layered commentary on quantum consciousness, quantum reality, and experiential directionality. When it is discovered that Stevens is essentially “dead,” and that his consciousness exists as a template for use within the source code, Doctor Routledge is adamant about keeping Stevens focused on the task at hand–finding the bomber. Goodwin also encourages Stevens to work to find the bomber, though she is more sympathetic to his plight. Both Routledge and Goodwin, though, approach the situation from their own point in their own reality–that Stevens is only able to enter the memories and “afterglow” of the man Sean who was present on the train before the explosion. Approaching the outcome of events from this standpoint would hinder one from seeing how far this film reaches.
Stevens finally locates the bomber, and brings the information back to Goodwin and Routledge, who dispatch operatives in their reality. There are news clips that show the bomber’s white van being stopped; Stevens’s information checks out and the bomber is stopped. At this point in the film, Stevens appeals to Goodwin to send him back inside and give him the opportunity to save the passengers. She comments that it cannot be done, that it is impossible to change events, but Stevens flippantly says he understands that, but that Goodwin and Routledge are wrong–he can change things. Goodwin promises Stevens that she will send him back for one last trip, eight minutes of time inside the source code, after which she will terminate his life in her reality. This takes place much to the disapproval of Doctor Routledge, who wants to wipe Stevens’s memories and set him up with another mission now that the source code program is successful.
While back in the moments before the initial explosion, Stevens uses the information he has learned along the way to disarm the train bomb, stop the bomber by handcuffing him to the inside of a rail car, and send Goodwin an email. He saves the people on the train, and the people in Chicago, from the bombs, and steps into a new life with Christina. It is in this science fiction that his actions within the source code make sense in an Einsteinian quantum consciousness paradigm.
Each time the source code sends Colter Stevens back into the “afterglow” of the train victim Sean’s neural map, he is sent back with eight minutes of time to effect a change. Each time, however, any changes he made ended with a train explosion that did not create a great sense of entropic change from the reality in which Goodwin and Routledge first sent him into the source code. While back in that kinetic window, however, Stevens’s consciousness essentially left this reality and traveled to another reality, where there was another Goodwin and another Routledge working with another Stevens in the source code lab. The Captain’s consciousness transferred from our reality back into Sean’s reality (where he was presumably asleep), and when he managed to save the people on the train, he essentially created a completely new reality for hundreds of other neural consciousnesses. These alternate realities are foreshadowed in the film when Captain Stevens asks Goodwin if she thinks there are other versions of herself out there somewhere. One who never got married, one who never got divorced, etc.
While the consciousness of Stevens was inside Sean’s body, he was acting out that experiential reality in the moment, from the experiential direction of that particular consciousness. For him in that moment it was essentially another reality altogether. He was able to email the Goodwin of that reality–a different Goodwin than the one who originally sent him into the source code. She was able to receive that email because Stevens stopped the momentous event that triggered the need for source code to be used in the initial reality. This, of course, was the largest hole in the film in that the power of the source code to access the eight minute afterglow of the human brain was never addressed, thus befuddling any reason for one quantum reality to be out of temporal sync with another (though not excluding that possibility). Still, assuming that the technology is based on interactive quantum energy, the reasons why it would be possible are largely irrelevant. Regardless, the end result is a temporal anomaly due to the transfer of one consciousness into a reality where it already exists in a different (inactive) version. This leads Stevens’s email to ask Goodwin to be gentle with this alternate version of himself, and tell him that “everything will be okay.”
When Stevens’s body was terminated by Goodwin while he was inside the source code, his consciousness remained in the new reality, an alternate energy pattern able to interact in its new experiential parameters with nothing connecting it to its former reality (since for Stevens and presumably Sean that reality no longer exists). Ultimately he discovered that the source code does not just allow people to access information from memories, but due to the afterglow’s temporal shift allows the source code operative to alter the nature of reality itself–to create new realities. The end of the film also shows us that the source code program still exists in this newly formed version of reality, on the lookout for the next crisis that will prove its importance.
I enjoyed this movie on multiple levels. There are issues in that there are hollow elements of the story and in the temporal aspects of the science fiction, but overall, as a piece on quantum consciousness and rethinking alternate realities and Bose-Einstein condensates in quantum computing, it was pretty trippy. I definitely recommend this film.