MOVIE: Source Code (2011)

NOTE: This review does NOT contain anything I’d consider a “spoiler.”  But I can’t vouch for the comments section, where spoilage of the ending may occur.  If you haven’t seen the movie, STAY OUTTA THE COMMENTS!

Most of the reviews I’ve read about this movie have said the same thing: it’s a total blast as long as you don’t think about it too much.

Well, where’s the fun in THAT, I ask you.  I’m a bit of a physics nerd, and you can’t make a movie about time travel and expect me NOT to think about it.  That’s just crazy talk, sirs and madams.

But first, let me say that those critics and I agree about one thing:  this movie is definitely fun.  It’s about an Army helicopter pilot, Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is being attacked in the air over Afghanistan when he suddenly finds himself at rest inside a strange metal pod.  On a TV screen above him comes a woman who identifies herself as Col. Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and explains he’s been recruited for an experimental mission that involves sending his consciousness back in time to inhabit the body of a young man named Sean Fentress on a Chicago-bound commuter train earlier that morning.

Because of the way the procedure works, she says, Stevens can only inhabit Sean for the last eight minutes of his life — you see, Sean, as well as everybody else on the train, was killed that morning when a terrorist’s bomb exploded on board, and they need Stevens to figure out who the bomber is so they can stop him before he detonates another one.

As Stevens returns over and over to re-experience the same eight minutes, he gradually collects enough information to deduce the identity of the bomber.  He also falls in love with a woman on the train, the first face he sees every time he is sent back.

What I found intriguing about this film was less the mystery about the bomber (which is pretty ho-hum, frankly) and more the mystery about this experimental time travel procedure, which the movie doesn’t even attempt to explain, aside from saying it involves “quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus.”  To the movie, and to most of its viewers, the “how?” is not really important.  But to nerds like me, it’s endlessly thought-provoking, so I will now ramble on for several paragraphs while I work through some of my theories.

There are two possibilities, to my mind.  One is that the time travel Stevens is experiencing involves parallel universes (as opposed to a more Back to the Future-type time travel, where you go back in your own reality and your actions can impact your own future — these are two well-known ideas about how time travel might work, and it’s my understanding that most physicists who believe in this stuff think the parallel universe one is more likely).

There are several elements in the story that suggest this parallel universe thing is at work, especially the ending, but there are also several elements that don’t quite make sense in that context.

For example, my understanding of parallel universes is that they’re not identical (and how could they be, when all it takes to change everything is the flap of a single butterfly’s wings, right?), and that’s suggested here too by the fact Stevens in Sean’s body is obviously altering the events of that time line.  But if that’s the case, and parallel universes are not identical, then how are they so sure the bombing will happen at all, let alone be perpetrated by the same guy?  And why does Goodwin tell Stevens he can’t save the people on the train because they’re already dead (in her universe/time line).  He’d be able to save them in HIS universe/time, right?

That, and other discrepancies like it, bring me to my other theory, which is that the procedure isn’t about time travel at all — the way we think of it anyway. Instead I’m thinking it could be some kind of complex computer simulation.  Professor Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the procedure’s developer, talks about the brain being able to store eight minutes of memory after death, as though it were somehow retrievable data.  If it’s a simulation, that explains why Goodwin insists Stevens can’t save anybody (though she may simply have been lying about that for expediency’s sake, I suppose).  BUT, it doesn’t really explain how he could find the bomber. Sean’s last eight minutes were spent sitting in a train car talking to a friend — the only memories he would have would be of that single car, and possibly the restroom and any passengers who happened to walk through.  Yet Stevens is able to go beyond that and to interact with people Sean did not interact with, as well as get off the train and experience events there.

Then again, an advanced computer should be able to accurately extrapolate a lot of information from that original data set.  And so, in that case, maybe this theory works.  Goodwin tells Stevens the bomber is one of the passengers in that car, for one thing, which goes along with the idea that Sean is the perfect person to inhabit (though I’m not sure how she could possibly know the bomber was from that car and not, say, the car next to it — the location of the bomb and the phone the bomber leaves behind suggest proximity, not specificity) (but whatever).  Also, Stevens and the computer simulation are also given more data as Goodwin’s day progresses and her investigators find additional clues, thus providing more variables, leading, potentially, to more, and more accurate, extrapolations.

This is the theory that makes the most sense to me — at least until we get to the end.  Then I start having to go a little more Russell-Crowe-in-Virtuosity to get it to work out.

Oh, heck, who knows?  All I really know is that I wish I’d seen this one with my mom, because we LOVE trying to hash these kinds of things out together after watching movies like this one, and now I’ll have to wait for the damn DVD!  Rats!  (Though if any of you guys saw the movie and want to nerd out with me in the comments, I would love it.  Feel free to talk about the ending there, and if you haven’t seen the film, again, STAY OUT!)

Extremely entertaining flick and a great one for all fans of sci-fi action, nerd and non-nerd alike.  Recommended!

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Science Fiction, Action
Cast:  Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden

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16 Responses to “MOVIE: Source Code (2011)”

  1. RogerBW Says:

    Your Theory 2 leads to the problem of why someone has to be sent in to experience it in real-time. If you have a computer simulation already, there are easier and better ways to find out about it – for example, a floating viewpoint that can alter the time rate and move about at will, without messing about simulating the reactions of all the other people. To me, Theory 1 makes more sense. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than much filmed SF manages for consistency…

  2. Meg Says:

    I suppose that’s true, but I could still see the value of having someone in there in real-time. He was able to do things like interact with the people, talk to them, get a sense of their body language, open their bags, etc. — stuff only a person interacting with people, simulated or not, would be able to do.

    But yeah, I mean, it still doesn’t really make sense. Theory 1 is easier to work with, except for the inconsistencies about parallel universes that just don’t add up here.

  3. Jo Says:

    Here’s the part I don’t get – they said he went into Sean’s memories because Sean was the best “match”. But what were they matching? If they had access to Sean’s memories at all, why didn’t they have access to everyone else’s on the train, including the bomber’s? In which case they’d know already who the bomber was.

    I think “parallel universe” makes the most sense – at the end of the movie we don’t really know if Colter is in our reality or a different one. (And btw, what about poor Sean, in either reality?)

  4. Meg Says:

    Ah, that’s because the bomber didn’t die, I think, Jo. They only had access to the victim’s brains — the bomber got off the train and continued on to his next nefarious plan.

    I’m not sure what made Sean the “best match,” but I sort of just assumed it was that he was a strong male of roughly the same age as Stevens, which would make the transition easier for Stevens, and also that he was a familiar face on the train (a regular commuter) and in the right car. Though, again, I don’t understand how they knew that was the right car.

    That’s true about the end — he’s able to send a message to our reality, after all, which made it seem like he was going back in time in OUR universe. Except, if that were the case, after he’s altered the explosion in the past, no bomb goes off, which means he would never have been sent to the past in the first place, so he’d just disappear and Sean would be back, right?

    The “same timeline” theory opens up a lot of complications in that regard — the “grandfather paradox,” they call it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grandfather_paradox

    The parallel universe makes the most sense to me too, except for the part where it’s an identical universe, which again, I can’t see how that’s possible. That’s why I started thinking about a simulation (which they also sort of suggest in the film). Except that doesn’t QUITE work either, as Roger points out. In any case, it’s fun thinking about it!

    I wondered where Sean ended up too. I mean, he’s dead in the “real” universe. So, maybe it doesn’t matter that he’s also now gone in the parallel one?

    Incidentally, I was stunned by Stevens’s physical condition in the “real” world — ugh, awful. It made me think about what I would want in that situation — to continue on with the project or to be taken off life support (as Stevens chose). I think I’d probably want to continue on, to be honest, at least for a little while. It would give me a chance to get to help lots of people before I let go.

    • Brian Says:

      Ah, no Meg. He doesn’t send a message to our reality. It goes to another reality with another Colter Stevens. Hence the fact that there, the bombing doesn’t end up happening.

      But yeah, no matter which way you look at it, there are way too many holes. Basically, they couldn’t have had it be a going-back-in-time-in-the-same-universe because then it creates a paradox where the bombing never happened, and so the plot of the movie doesn’t happen… and so then it must happen, etc.

      I think the best thing you can go with in terms of parallel universes is that they’re only parallel beginning the moment Colter goes back in time and the decisions start branching off of what he does differently each time. Because otherwise, like you say, each universe should be different and some of them should have flying ships or different identities for the bomber, etc. But this goes along with what is, to me, the obvious explanation that the film is handing us in the set-up, which is that it is a simulation. Travel to another universe just doesn’t make any sense and falls apart the more that you look at it.

      And I totally agree (and this was the biggest thing that bugged me) that it makes no sense at all that he’d have access to information about things like another train station and the parking lot with the van that Sean Fentriss NEVER would have had information about in his brain.

      So… once you start actually looking at it, and the way everything falls in on itself, there’s really only one explanation. And that is that there is no travel to another universe, and that the hypothesis of this and the ending with Colter2 is all just a fantasy of Colter’s brain. Basically, he’s in heaven, or he’s simply experiencing the dream-like state you experience upon death, and this whole other universe thing is the creation of his ever-hopeful mind. Which, when you face that, is a pretty bleak ending. Because all it means is that he’s dead and in denial. Of course, the one thing that contradicts that is the sculptures he keeps seeing when he’s pulled out of the source code, yet I suppose you could reverse engineer that and explain it in such a way that the image was already in his brain as a symbol of peacefulness or something, which is why his brain called it up both when he was leaving the source code to try to calm him, and in his dying moments. Either way, it’s an unhappy ending that the filmmakers have tried to twist into a hopeful ending without doing enough work to make it a legitimate possibility. Instead, everything falls apart about as quickly as you must ultimately acknowledge it’s a popcorn-only movie. Which is okay in theory, that it’s ultimately a mindless blockbuster with nothing to hold it up past the flimsy framework… but it’s pretty disappointing when you take into consideration that it comes from the guy who directed Moon. From that film, you’d expect more of this than such shoddy handiwork. My girlfriend said that basically the ending sucked and they just should have ended it at the kiss, and she’s right. Then they could have left the determination of what was happening purely in the minds of the audience, without so much showing the seams of a sci-fi logic structure that can’t be supported.

  5. Jo Says:

    You’re so smart!! I totally didn’t think about the bomber not being dead.

    I’ve always thought it would be interesting to have parallel universes that diverge and then synch up again. Kind of like an auto-correct feature because after all what’s meant to be is meant to be.

  6. flavio Says:

    I also think that the parallel universes makes more sense. And they are not identical universes, but every time Stevens was sent back in Sean`s memories, a new universe splits from the original one and it takes a separate path. From this point the new universe is quite different from the original.
    In the text message that Steves sent Goodwin he says : “If you’re reading this e-mail, then Source Code works even better than you and Dr. Rutledge imagined. You thought you were creating 8 minutes of a past event, but you’re not. You’ve created a whole new world. Goodwin, if I’m right, somewhere at the Source Code facility, you have a Capt. Colter Stevens waiting to send on a mission. Promise me you’ll help him. And when you do, do me a favor: tell him everything is gonna be okay.”

  7. Meg Says:

    Yeah, but that still doesn’t address why it appears that every thing UNTIL Colter enters the parallel universe is the same as the “regular” universe — like the existence of the bomber and the location of the bomb, etc.

    Ow, my head.

    • RogerBW Says:

      The divergence point is the point of entry, I think – it has to be for the thing to work at all. At that instant, the new universe (which has Stevens in Sean’s head) starts to vary from the old one. But that doesn’t mean the bomb, which has already been planted, will go somewhere else…

      • megwood Says:

        Oh, I see what you’re saying — divergence point makes sense. Whew! Good. I feel better.

      • flavio Says:

        quote “At that instant, the new universe (which has Stevens in Sean’s head) starts to vary from the old one.” i think that at that instance, the new universe starts to exist, it wasnt there before.

        _______________ > parallel universe
        _______/_______________ > original universe

      • flavio Says:

        a, sorry . the scheme wasn`t posted right, the parallel universe line should start above the slash

  8. flavio Says:

    Another question is what happened with Sean`s consciousness when Stevens`s consciousness took over Sean`s body?

  9. jonathan Says:

    Sorry for the late post, i am from Brazil and just watched it.

    How did Goodwin remember the bomber’s name ?

    Steven didnt write it on the text message.

    He started it with the same lines she used to recover his memories in the beginning : “Lily awoke in an evening dress and opera cloak.”

    So she knew it already?

    And why does he ask her to tell him everything will be okay?

    Christina is the one who says that to him…

  10. Meg Says:

    Hey, Jonathan! My understanding is that Goodwin doesn’t need the bomber’s name in the second timeline (the one with the text message) because he’s handcuffed him and called the cops. In that timeline, there will be no bombing. Hence, he’s not named in the text message. I don’t remember her saying the bomber’s name in that timeline — her boss says it, though, because he gets a call from the cops telling him they got a would-be bomber on the train.

    He asks her to tell him everything will be okay because that phrase resonated with him and stuck with him after Christina said it and he wants his “other” him to hear it as well before being disconnected so that he is also soothed by it. At least, that was my understanding. Make sense?

    Just saw it again myself a couple of days ago — still loved it!! Great film!

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