Source Code: Because Groundhog Day Lacked Dubious Science

Guest Blogger —  April 14, 2011

Caution… potential movie spoilers ahead.

Many characters in film and television have wrestled with the question, “Does she really love me for me?” But only a select few, including Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) and that guy from Quantum Leap, have had to answer it in another dude’s body.

Source Code, Duncan Jones‘ sophomore directorial effort, after debuting with the vastly superior Moon in 2009, is the kind of movie where you can sort of accept the things that are happening on screen until people start trying to explain them. Our hero, Captain Stevens, wakes up on a train and spends the rest of the movie exploding for a good cause.

Stevens is part of an experiment that transports him back to the last eight minutes of one passenger’s life on a Chicago commuter train to figure out who placed the bomb that wiped out everyone on board. Nothing Stevens does can affect the outcome in his own timeline, so he’s strictly gathering information to thwart a possible future attack. Every time his host body dies, Stevens is forced back on the train to try again. Think Groundhog Day meets Seven Days. You don’t know what Seven Days is because you watched fewer hours of UPN than I did? Congratulations.

Source Code isn’t a bad movie. It’s competently directed, mostly well acted, crisply edited, and well paced until the end. Gyllenhaal even delivers some genuinely funny lines without undermining the tone. Unfortunately, the script has its fair share of problems.

The movie leaves us in the dark for awhile, but not for lack of Stevens trying to get some answers. Much like the audience, Stevens has no idea why he’s traveling through time solving mysteries like Hercule Poirot in the fourth dimension and his handlers (Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) initially refuse to acknowledge any of his questions because, well, they’re big jerks I guess.

Supposedly there’s not enough time to explain what’s going on because the next attack could happen at any moment. But you know what takes longer than explaining what’s happening? Arguing about why you can’t explain what’s happening. And then explaining what’s happening anyway. Turns out Stevens is in “the source code,” an invention resulting from breakthroughs in neuroscience (the study of the nervous system) and quantum physics (the study of time magic).

Screenwriter Ben Ripley filled in these plot details and others by skimming Michael Crichton’s Timeline and listening to Madonna. Stevens only has four minutes to save the world because he’s already committed the other four to hitting on chicks. Eight minutes is an ambitious time frame for establish a relationship under any circumstances, but it’s especially impressive considering

A) the object of his affection, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), is a passenger on the train who thinks Stevens is another man entirely
B) his crush has no recollection whatsoever of all the time they’ve spent blowing up together.

Now let me list the reasons Stevens seems to have such a thing for Christina:

  1. She’s the first pretty lady he sees on the train.
  2. He knows she’s a nice person because she was kind enough not to yell at a woman for spilling her drink.
  3. There aren’t any other pretty ladies on the train.

Source Code was the perfect opportunity to reexamine the isolation and loneliness at the center of Jones’ first movie, Moon. Stevens doesn’t know why he is where he is, can’t get a straight answer from anyone and has to tackle a seemingly impossible task by himself in a crowd full of people he can’t possibly explain his circumstances to. This should have been the main thrust of the film, and at times it is, but it’s undermined by the importance placed on the romance. All I’m saying is that Moon wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if Sam Rockwell had suddenly developed an intense physical attraction to Kevin Spacey’s emoticon-spewing robot surrogate.

Duncan Jones also whiffs somewhat on examining the ethics of Stevens’ situation. Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Rutledge doesn’t become the valid counterpoint to Stevens’ point of view he should have been. Instead, Rutledge makes his way down the path toward cartoonish villainy, culminating in narcissistic hair combing in place of mustache twirling.

Source Code will keep you entertained for the first 70 or so minutes before the anticlimactic finish and sudden emotional housecleaning. But, if you’re looking for action, you could do worse.

Jones has undeniable talent and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here. He’s rumored to be in talks to direct the Wolverine movie Darren Aronofsky abandoned. It’s a superhero flick, so it seems likely that he’s headed for more explosions.

8 responses to Source Code: Because Groundhog Day Lacked Dubious Science

  1. Source Code, for me, is Groundhog Day meets Inception meets Matrix. It’s a solid movie if you don’t over-analyze it. I can actually think of counter-arguments to most of the issues you brought up, but think you missed the biggest one — the hero essentially takes over the life of another person in an alternate universe in the ending. How’s he supposed to live as another person if he knows nothing about him, his family, etc. Not to mention moral & ehtical aspects.

    One other thing about the ending — you say “anticlimactic finish and sudden emotional housecleaning”; I say it’s a nice way to resolve the movie as it was heading toward a dark, downer ending.

  2. Ivan, I agree completely with the issue you have with the ending. I was doing my best not to give away the whole movie.

  3. One of my big problems with the movie was the fact that they developed this whole system of putting someone in someone else body but why the 8 minute limit?? What would have happened if the bomb was placed 15 minutes before the train blew up and the guy who placed it left the train 10 minutes before?? Then the whole source code program would have solved nothing, and they would have got 0 information from it….So they did all this research and build a military program around something that could only be used what, at most in .00001% of crimes/events(basically this one train bomb event)

  4. Ivan, yeah I was thinking a sequel could be a lot of fun and in a non-SciFi way as he acclimates. Then again, I could just go watch Big. But I’m glad it ended on a positive note. Also, it’s the type of movie boys and girls can enjoy together. I like sci-fi and explosions, whereas the wife prefers romance and comedy. Source Code successfully entertained us both.

  5. I know folks have got to keep the wife/girlfriend happy, but I can’t stand Vagience Fiction. I’ll watch a romantic movie when I want to, the idea that the most important thing for a guy with eight minutes to live is securing the love (and not the draws) of a beautiful woman is kinda ridiculous.

  6. Didn’t read the full review here, or the other comments, since I have yet to vidi Source Code.

    However, I will say that I thought Moon was a worthwhile vidi…

  7. Vagience Fiction? Really?

  8. I like the way the movie exploited the many worlds interpretation of the quantum wave function but felt kind of sorry for poor old Shawn in the end; he got wiped out of existence so the good captain Stevens could steal his chick and live again. On the other hand Stevens does suddenly have to go and be a high school history teacher – not the kind of job you just walk into.