First of all, let me say that Duncan Jones’s second film, Source Code, is a very good film. It is quite entertaining and very well acted, even if it is overly convoluted at times. Duncan Jones’s direction is great, adding subtle touches that really add weight to the emotional moments of the film, even when the script struggles with them.
But this not a review. With this piece I want to focus on specifically the ending of Source Code and what it defines the Source Code as, and just how messed up that is.
Suffice to say, there will be many spoilers throughout. Consider yourself warned.
The basic story of Source Code is that Captain Colter Stevens is a soldier that has been selected for a mission where he leaps into the consciousness of a man that was on a train that exploded earlier that day, eight minutes before the train exploded.
His mission is to find the bomber so that future bombings can be prevented. It isn’t easy for him so he has to be sent back in, over and over. In the process he begins to fall in love with a passenger on the train, Christina, who is well acquainted with Sean, the man that Colter takes over for eight minutes at a time. This is when the trouble begins.
After he discovers the identity of the bomber, Colter makes one last request: he wants to go back into the Source Code so that he can save Christina and the entire train of people. But why? As the designer of the program, Dr. Rutledge, explains to Colter, it is time displacement, not time travel, meaning changing the events within the Source Code does nothing for those events that have already played out in reality.
Think of it like this: you use an internet browser to search the internet. If you change the browser you are using, it doesn’t change the content on the internet.
But that doesn’t matter to Colter. He needs to save those people, presumably so he can feel like he has saved the woman he has fallen in love with. In doing so, he can feel like he has accomplished something. However, he then makes another request: he asks to die.
Colter is revealed to be a man that is neither alive nor dead. He was in a terrible helicopter accident and is now a vegetable. He retains certain cognitive activities that allow him to be connected to the Source Code. So his final request to Colleen Goodwin, his contact in the outside world, is to let him go into the Source Code one final time and take his body off life support, letting him save the train and die a hero.
What Colter discovers is that Rutledge’s assumptions about the Source Code are not true. The Source Code isn’t time displacement. It is actually reality creation. Every time the Source Code is activated it creates an alternate reality that mirrors our own. So when Colter’s body dies in his original reality, his consciousness severs connection with that reality and lives inside the one created by the Source Code.
This is all explained by an email that Colter sends to Colleen Goodwin while inside one of these realities. Since he prevented the train explosion, the copy of Colter in this new reality was never sent into the Source Code. Colter’s email urges Goodwin to help the copy when he asks for it and this whole story will be repeated again. Like Russian nesting dolls.
Well, if we are to believe Colter’s explanation of the Source Code’s true nature, that would mean that every time he failed previously a train full of people died. Not computer programs in a computer simulation. These people were brought into existence and killed eight minutes later. And Colter fails a lot in this movie. Several times because he isn’t even trying to save the people on the train. This makes Colter a mass murderer, even if it is after the fact.
Presumably these parallel realities are created before Colter enters. Which means Sean Fentress, whose consciousness Colter takes over, is a living being that has his body stolen from him. When Colter severs his ties with his reality to stay in this newly created one, he snuffs out Sean’s consciousness and replaces it with his own. So even in the reality in which Colter is a hero, he is still a murderer.
Why does he do this? To be with the woman he loves and that loves him. Only she doesn’t.
Christina has never met Colter. The man that she is attracted to is Sean, who has been murdered by Colter. She has only known Colter from the moment he took over Sean’s body. However, Colter has the advantage of having played out many different scenarios with Christina. So he knows exactly how to manipulate her to get her to be with him in this new reality he has chosen. He is impersonates the man she loves and manipulates her emotions to get what he wants from her.
So here is our hero: Colter Stevens, a murderer that lies and manipulates those he cares about to get what he wants.
It took a lot of examination for me to come to these conclusions, and I believe Source Code is a better film when they are taken into consideration. With these conclusions, Source Code is more than a well-made thriller with a lot of plot holes, it is a film that questions human existence, examining whether fate runs our lives or if we do. This is a film that asks questions about the nature of heroism and evil. Colter saves hundreds of people on a train at the cost of an innocent man’s life. Does that make him a hero or a villain? Is he good or evil? I would say it makes him both.
I am impressed that Duncan Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley were able to sneak this past the studio, which would rarely allowed such ambiguous content into summer movie fodder. I, for one, am happy he did it.