Screening Log #17: Source Code (2011)

Source Code PosterWritten by Ben Ripley

Directed by Duncan Jones

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright




Duncan Jones‘ second feature-length picture, after last year’s under-seen Moon, continues in his investigation into the existential concerns of identity and individualism in the modern world. Moon was a science fiction film, much like Source Code, in the thinking person’s sense; it was a stripped down drama – consisting of only Sam Rockwell and the voice of Kevin Spacey – about a man discovering that he is but one of many clones carrying out a job on the moon an countering himself face to face – literally. Where Moon interrogates the notions of identity and individualism by a multiplication of a “singular” character, Source Code conflates several “individuals” into one via the use of technology, quantum mechanics, and brain imaging.

CapsuleJake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, an air-force helicopter pilot who was on assignment in Afghanistan before waking up behind the face of another man, Sean Fentress, on a train to Chicago. He speaks to the young woman sitting across from him who seems to know him as someone else and fumbles around the train, confused, sees another man’s face in the bathroom mirror, before being exploded by a bomb on the train eight minutes after he arrived. He then finds himself strapped into an apparatus, speaking to an officer named Goodwin, Vera Farmiga, via a monitor who explains to him that there is a bomb on the train and he has to go back to discover the identity of the bomber so a subsequent crisis may be averted. Stevens, imaginably, is confused by being so dislocated in identity but returns back to the train to the exact moment to re-attempt the mission.

So Source Code becomes a harder SF version of Groundhog Day, wherein Bill Murray‘s character has to re-live the same day until he gets it right. Only now, in this film, lives are at stake and this occurrence is facilitated by the source code technology that – it is later explained – allows a sympathetic consciousness to be grafted into the short-term memory of another man in an alternate reality so that information may be gleaned. So, the 8 minute limit is a hard limit enforced by the restriction of Fentress’s brain physiology.

Explosive Deja vuStevens returns again and again to find the bomb and locate the person who has placed it there, encountering the people on the train and developing a strong sense of the young woman’s, Michelle Monaghan‘s Christina Warren, character. Jones does a good job of building tension while unspooling bits of knowledge about the workings of the source code to the audience between unsuccessful attempts; Ripley’s script does not ignore the obvious solutions most audience members would think of – i.e., get off the train and save yourself, save the girl, etc. – and answers them in kind while still building towards a finale.

Gyllenhaal and Monaghan are both game for the difficult proposition of their interactions, with Stevens always knowing more than he can let on; each is charming and likable and fosters a genuine hope that they can succeed in the audience, a sense of loss when they are inevitably engulfed in flame, time and time again.

Following the completion of his mission – which includes some at times absurdly ridiculous and unprompted physical assaults on suspects in subsequent trips – and after some startling revelations about his own place in the world, Stevens requests to make one last attempt to save the people on the train, using what he has learned through the course of his repetitions. Despite having been informed time and time again by Goodwin and her superior, Jeffrey Wright‘s Dr. Rutledge, that changing the events in source code is impossible due to it being a separate reality from their own, Stevens insists on attempting to save these people as much for his own peace of mind.

Cloud GateWhat follows is where Jones and Ripley steer the film farther into speculative quantum metaphysics, posing questions as to whether or not parallel universes exist and how many there may be, uprooting the perspective of the audience in the process: how many Stevens have existed before? Did we witness the first instance of source code being effective, of merely join it in progress of many attempts? Stevens and Warren find themselves standing before the Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park, tying up flashes that Stevens would receive transitioning in and out of the source code, and he asks Christina if she believes in destiny. The image is an apt one to encapsulate the film: a multiplicity of reflected people, distorted and bent, identities shifted but no less present.

I am hardly the first to make the connection, but much begs to be thought about in terms of Jones’ early motifs – the complication of identity, the liquidity of self-definition and self-determination in the face of technology, etc. – in the light of his being the son of David Bowie. Bowie, famous as one of rock’s great chameleons, spent his life – and, indeed, much of Jones’ youth – embodying different characters and styles on stage. The desire to reconnect with a father is present in Source Code as well, providing one of the more emotionally resonant moments in the film as well as one of Stevens’ driving motivations. Regardless of who or where we are there is a complicated relationship to family and generativity. Whether a clone or a consciousness projected into the memory of someone other, ontologically speaking, something cannot come from nothing and identity is predicated on a sense of negation; you are who you are because you are not someone else and you desire to cross this divide, you desire connection.

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