You’re Inside the Source Code (And It’s Not What You Think It Is!)
13/04/2011 2 Comments
Or, Massively Spoilerish Lines Written in a Departure Lounge
(Seriously, don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film yet and are intending to!)
I want to be clear, first off: I enjoyed Source Code in spite of everything I’m going to say. It’s pacey, it’s entertaining, and it makes a virtue out of one of the most difficult tropes in science-fiction, the Groundhog Day, tell-the-same-story-over-and-over-again narrative. No one can argue with three simple statements about the film: Duncan Jones knows what he’s doing as a director, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers some of his best acting in a long time, and Vera Farmiga looks very well in an Air Force uniform (that’s all I’ll say about that, I swear!).
On the other hand, Source Code doesn’t make a *lick* of sense.
I might have had a great time watching this, but I had to overlook a lot of difficulties arising from the story (which, I note, Jones did not write). In fact, this film is one of the worst depictions of science in a *long* time. It’s been a while now since I’ve seen such reliance on the Quantum Plothole, that notion that Hollywood (and much fiction) has that it can sick the word “Quantum” in front of *anything* and the audience will believe what’s happening is perfectly reasonable. “But it doesn’t make any logical sense!” some cry; “No, no,” the film-makers say, “It’s allright, you see quantum… parallel… entanglement… blah-blah… *science*!”
But let’s think about the science of the Source Code project, specifically the technology developed by Jeffrey Wright’s cranky, crutch-wielding government boffin. To allow Jake Gyllenhaal relive the last 8min of a bomb victim’s life over and over, Source Code relies on two things: 1) Residual electrical activity in the brain which persists for a period after death, “afterglow” Jeffrey Wright calls it; basically, the bomb victim is dead but the neural pathways of his brain are still viable. And 2) because of this viability, Source Code is able to access the short term memory of the bomb victim, the last 8min of his life allowing Jake Gyllenhaal to relive it. So far so good. That all seems a bit out there, but it’s still logically coherent and, if we’re generous, it is within the bounds of fringe science.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s mission is to find whoever planted the bomb on the train, which would be fine except Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t just relive the memories over and over, examining them with a critical eye. No, he *changes* things, he *interacts* with other passengers on the train and he does so as (meaning from within the body) of the man who’s memories the government has appropriated. It makes for decent drama, but it’s so horribly illogical that I can’t move past it… In what is, essentially an 8min mental video tape from one individual’s perspective, Jake Gyllenhaal gets up, runs around the place, talks to people the dead man never spoke to, interacts with objects (emptying out other people’s bags, for example), and even gets *off* the train a few times! Try to do that with one of your own memories. Remember the last time you were on a train. Can you remember who was sitting at the end of the carriage? Good, now go over and talk to them.
Not possible. Only, yes, sorry, quantum parabolics, or some some such technobabble. Not cool.
On the train, Jake Gyllenhaal interacts mostly with Michelle Monaghan’s passenger, which is nice because they begin to develop a thing and we get a little romance in our lives… Only he interacts with her as the man whose identity he has basically stolen. Michelle Monaghan believes she’s finally making a romantic connection to someone she’s known for a substantial period of time, but, no, it’s just Jake Gyllenhaal wearing a Sean suit. How do we tell the difference? Well, the real Sean was a teacher and so (hopefully) would have understood the *massive* ethical issue here!
Anyway, Jake Gyllenhaal becomes convinced that if he relives the bombing enough times (an attack in which everyone died, by the way) he will be able to gather enough evidence to stop it. “No, no,” Jeffrey Wright says, “that doesn’t make any sense”. Which is correct because “Source Code is not time travel”. There is, Jeffrey Wright says, “only one timeline”. According to the rules laid out, Jake Gyllenhaal should not be able to affect the real world. And again, this is completely sensical, especially as we learn that the real Jake Gyllenhaal is himself little more than a badly damaged brain hooked up to a computer. In essence, his personality has been uploaded up to a computer simulation derived from the memories of another dead man. At best, this is a powerful analytic tool for imaging a crime scene just before a crime; at best, Jake Gyllenhaal ought to gain a valuable, first-hand perspective of conditions on the train before the bomb, but that’s *all* he ought to be able to do. Certainly he shouldn’t be able to have conversations the dead man never had or get off the train at stops he never made. He’s a simulation within a simulation; *of course* he shouldn’t be able to change the real world.
But un-naturally enough he does.
The film implies, though never states outright, that every time Jake Gyllenhaal is sent back into the simulation a new, parallel universe is created. It’s the same as you creating a new timeline every time you begin a game of The Sims. Which is ridiculous (did that even need to be said?!). It betrays a massive misunderstanding of the rules of the film as laid out less than an hour earlier, and, worse, it’s nonsensical. Quantum Mechanics is *not* magic (though, in films and fiction, is all too often treated as such). You can’t just stick “quantum” in front of an unintelligible plot development and expects us to accept it just because quantum mechanics is, in actuality, a terrifyingly bizarre field of study. It’s a huge, huge problem with Source Code, though not the only one…
Even if we accept that it’s *somehow* possible that every time Jake Gyllenhaal relives these 8min he creates a new, parallel universe, all but the final universe sees him getting the train blown up. More than that, his repeated attempts to save Michelle Monaghan see her die horribly countless times in the bomb blast, and even when Jake Gyllenhaal rescues her (a development which, reminder, shouldn’t be possible), she ends up in timelines where sees the man she’s in love with get hit by an express train, and eventually she herself gets shot in the head. That’s a lot of dead or miserable Michelle Monaghans out there in the Source Code multiverse, but that’s okay, the film says, because in the final parallel timeline in which the picture ends, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan end up happy together when Vera Farmiga carries out Jake Gyllenhaal wishes and cuts off life support to his brain in the Source Code facility. Essentially, she ends the simulation of his personality just at the moment the final 8min simulation of the train ends. That should be it, cut to black, the end. However, after a brief freeze-frame, Jake Gyllenhaal’s new life continues in, the film suggests, the real world, a *parallel* real world.
Except Jake Gyllenhaal has *stolen someone’s body*!
His mind is inside the brain of Michelle Monaghan’s friend Sean, the guy who she’s been crushing on for a while now and *Jake Gyllenhaal is pretending to be him*! “It’s the new me,” he says, as though that justifies *overwriting the mind* (so, essentially, murdering) of an innocent civilian. What’s more, he’s perfectly okay with maintaining this pretence because he gets to make out a lot with a pretty girl. Now, good luck to him and all that, but, seriously, wat kind of message is the film trying to send here?!
These are two big, big problem with Source Code for me, requiring quite a lot (perhaps too much) from the Department of Suspension of Disbelief. Logic, of all things, leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth after an otherwise excellently directed and acted film.