Source Code and the Disturbing Ending No One Noticed

Title card for the film Source Code

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.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Colter Stevens on a train in the movie Source CodeThe 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.

Michelle Monaghan as Christina Warren in the movie Source CodeAfter 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.

Jeffrey Wright as Doctor Rutledge on a video screen in the film Source CodeBut 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.

Vera Farmiga as Colleen Goodwin appearing on a video communication screen in the movie Source CodeBut that isn’t what happens and Colter knows this.

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.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan as Colter Stevens and Christina Warren in the film Source Code, sitting across from each other on a trainSo our hero saves the train, saves the girl he loves, and lives happily ever after. Why is this ending troubling?

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.

A train exploding and falling off the tracks in the movie Source CodeBut let’s say we forgive him for that. There are still more crimes to list.

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.

Michelle Monaghan as Christina Warren looking unsure in the film Source CodeChristina 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.

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  1. C says:

    The source code allows Colter to enter a parallel universe for 8 min to discover who the bomber is. There is no reason to expect that the universe would be identical only similar. Therefore, he does not kill the people on the train each time he enters the source code as they already exist in a parallel universe. However, you are right that he kills the consciouness of Sean in the last entry. The moral question is whether killing Sean is justified to save all the people on the train?

  2. Israel says:

    I’d like to say that he didn’t murder the man but saved everyone from a horrible bombing except for the one him.

  3. Pierce says:

    My point is that if he is entering parallel universes, in the ones where he fails (sometimes by purpose), he is killing trains full of people. Different universes, different versions of those people. Over and over again.

    Except in the final one where he manages to stop the bombing. But he still takes over Sean Fentress’s consciousness and body, eliminating him.

  4. Angelica says:

    He thought he was going to die at the end (after the 8 minutes ), but because he had been “disconnected” in his timeline, his conciseness didn’t have a place to go back to, so it remained in the body of Sean Fentress, he killed him, but he didn’t intend to do that in the first place.

  5. Quincy Scott says:

    Except he literally didn’t murder anybody. There’s no evidence that the world is created first and then he’s inserted into it. If we’re talking about quantum realities, it’s most likely his actual presence in the past that creates the new time line where none existed before. This occurs only inside that 8 minute window. Therefore, the person who’s body he’s inhabiting didn’t even exist in that time line and in fact never ever existed in that time line.

    Furthermore, you attempt to claim he’s a murderer when he doesn’t try and save the people on the train. This is the most ridiculous charge of all. He has no obligation to save the people on the train. They are not his family. They are not his friends. They are not his loved ones. They are not his charges in any way, shape, or form. He neither placed the bomb, nor himself in the situation to begin with, and has been told these events cannot be changed beyond the 8 minute window. He has no knowledge that these events can be permanently altered at that point in the story. Therefore he is not responsible for their welfare AT ALL.

    It’s remarkable that we live in an age where it’s commonly recognized that you can’t draft a woman into having a child that results from her deliberate sexual activity, and even the suggestion in fiction is generally frowned upon, but magically you can depict in a movie someone kidnap a man, hide him from his family, perform bizarre medical experiments on him, enslave him, and generally crap all over his civil liberties, and a supposedly rational person would claim he’s a murderer because he didn’t enthusiastically cooperate with his kidnappers and enslavers.

    The only charge leveled that I can half agree with is that if he engages her in an intimate relationship without telling her who he really is then he has perpetrated a crime upon her. However, they have yet to even approach intimacy. All he did was casually kiss her. Unless and until she’s about to become his woman, he does not owe her that information. The only culpability for any of these events he has was to ask for release from his imprisonment. And as he had no other means of escape, his current predicament is not his fault.

    All he can do is live his new life as best he can. He faces a hard choice if he decides to continue seeing Christina. However, he’d have a massively difficult time convincing her of the truth, since he has no evidence. His only shot would be to contact Goodwin and attempt to get her to vouch for his incredible story. In doing so, he would not only be putting his life in danger, but anyone he shared that information with. Because any organization willing to do to an American citizen what was done to him would have no qualms about snuffing him and anyone associated with his behind out in a heartbeat, in order to prevent public exposure of their program. It’s probably best for all concerned if he keep that information to himself.

    At the end I found myself sympathizing with Goodwin more than anyone. Though she is one of his kidnappers, she did the right thing in the end and freed him from his enslavement. And it is a sober realization that in each universe in which she does the right thing, she will be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law” for her Kevorkian good will.

  1. 7ème art: Outstanding Science-Fiction | miss booleana says:

    [...] davon hatte, was passieren wird. Hierzu ein interessanter – nicht spoilerfreier – Artikel.) Jake Gyllenhaal spielt hier sympathisch und ambitioniert. Es ist greifbar wie schräg die [...]

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