My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Snapshot: A well done psychological thriller and thought-provoking exploration of the concept of parallel universes.
On one level, Source Code is Quantum Leap (1989-1993) on steroids. A man, Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), gets sent to an alternate reality, inhabits the body of someone there, and tries to correct an injustice. (There’s even a cameo by Scott Bakula near the end of the movie.)
The overriding theme of Source Code, though, is very similar to Duncan Jones’s superb 2009 film Moon. Like Moon, Source Code is a character study of one man who finds himself isolated and at the mercy of distant controllers telling him to do things that make no sense. Similarly, once Colter figures out the truth of his situation he tries to turn the tables on his handlers in order to survive.
The basic set-up is this: Air Force Captain Stevens is one moment fighting in Afghanistan, then the next moment is in the body of a man named Sean Fentress on a commuter train headed for Chicago. Neither Stevens nor the audience knows what’s going on at first. Slowly we learn that Stevens is part of a military operation codenamed Beleaguered Castle, and that he is being repeatedly sent back to the final eight minutes of the train’s existence to find the identity of the terrorist who planted the bomb that destroyed the train.
The highly implausible explanation for this mind transfer is that dead brains retain the last eight minutes of experience, and that these brainwaves can be coded into a computer program to simulate what happened. This “source code” enables Stevens to not only experience Fentress’s thoughts during these eight minutes, but to actually control Fentress’s body and do new actions that change the outcome of the simulation.
In essence, the film is showing that parallel realities are being created by Stevens every time he goes back to the train, despite the explanation given by the scientist (Jeffrey Wright) who is the mastermind of the operation. This brings up oh so many questions about what’s really going on, especially in light of what happens at the end of the movie. I think part of the charm of Source Code is that the viewer can’t be sure what the truth is. To me, that is the hallmark of good science fiction—letting the viewer/reader think for themselves and project their own interpretations on things. This is why Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), The Inverted World (1974) by Christopher Priest, and almost anything by Philip K. Dick are some examples of science fiction at its finest.
Source Code is probably not a masterpiece that will be revered by the ages, but it’s thought-provoking, fun, and has a satisfying emotional conclusion. It’s a terrific story about a man ravaged by war who seeks redemption and acceptance. It’s a fast-paced thriller that doesn’t forget that characters you care about in interesting situations are what audiences want to see. Duncan Jones is two for two in creating thoughtful, literate science fiction films.