There’s a scene towards the end of Source Code that might be the finest 30 seconds of celluloid I’ve seen so far this year. In it, Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his newfound love (Michelle Monaghan) share a last kiss, right before he dies. The moment is frozen and the camera does a great slow pan around their train car, the music swelling as we say goodbye to all of the other characters he’s spent the movie interacting with. It’s an impossible sequence, but it’s so cleanly put together that you think it’s just a regular tracking shot, and it’s the perfect way to end this frenetic sci-fi.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t end there. Instead, we find out that he actually survives, now free to live his life inside the body of some poor schmuck that just happened to have similar synapse mappings, or however the heck it all works.
But perhaps a quick review of recent events is in order:
Capt. Stevens is an unwilling participant in an experimental protocol nonsensically called “Source Code,” that allows its subjects to temporarily inhabit another person’s mind during the eight minutes prior to that person’s death. In this case, he inhabits one of the victims of a train bombing, in an effort to find out who the culprit was. Calling this movie “Source Code” makes about as much sense as calling your pet chihuahua “Giraffe,” unless you’re doing so ironically. (And I doubt that director Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, is a hipster.)
But that odd title is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. How any of this technology is even possible is explained away by some ridiculous analogy involving lightbulbs, because well, no explanation on Earth could make sense of a premise like that. There’s no explanation for the rather arbitrary 8-minute window, or how they are able to capture the brain waves of a person who was blown to smithereens many hours ago. Or, for that matter, how they can totally rip off Quantum Leap and not even give poor Scott Bakula a cameo. This kind of lazy writing bothers me, but the movie is paced so well that you put off arguing with it until it makes more sense.
Unfortunately, again, it never does. This part does bother me. Capt. Stevens is told many times that he cannot actually change what’s already happened; all he can do is learn from it and try to prevent a second bomb from going off. Nonetheless, he does try to change things, by placing a call to Project Source Code’s lead scientist (Jeffrey Wright) while he’s on the ill-fated train. When asked about it later, the scientist waves away the possibility by saying that the call would’ve gone through to “another me,” in a different reality.
We’re familiar with this parallel-universe concept from decades of X-Men comics. Each decision you have to make causes the universe to fork, with each branch containing the results of your choices. In this manner, there are an infinite number of parallel universes, each one differing from the others in small or vast ways. This ensures that no one can rewrite history; jumping backwards in time to kill Hitler just causes another universe to spring forth in which Hitler is dead, while the branch you are originally from remains unchanged. The parallel-universe style of time-travel is the opposite of what happens in movies like The Terminator, in which a future John Connor famously sends back a foot soldier to protect the woman who would eventually give birth to him. If she dies, future John Connor ceases to exist. This woman is played by Linda Hamilton, so naturally the soldier ends up sleeping with her, and the product of their impromptu love affair turns out to be none other than Connor himself. In this set of time-travel rules, time is a single stream and changing things in the past irrevocably have repercussions in the future.
The big twist at the end of Source Code is a real mind-bender, and not in a good way. It spends 95% of its running time making you think that it adheres to the parallel-universes principle, and then turns the tables on you at the very end. Oops, time is actually a single stream! Who knew? Clearly not the writers, who not only allow Capt. Stevens to rewrite history, but also let him continue inhabiting the body of the (ex-)victim after the danger has passed. And after he’s been unplugged from the Source Code, no less. So although he may have saved a train full of people, he’s extinguished the life of the man his new squeeze is really in love with. Not exactly the most selfless way to end a movie, but I think you were supposed to feel that he somehow deserved it.
I first noticed Duncan Jones’ work in the Sam Rockwell feature “Moon,” which was quite possibly the most impressive sci-fi debut since “Primer.” With “Source Code,” you can see improvements all around. The pacing moves at bullet-train speed, the dialogue is sharp, and there’s nary a scene wasted on fluff. This is perhaps what makes the saccharine ending so disappointing. Not only does it undo all of the rules it had spent so much time setting up, but it does so unnecessarily. The perfect ending was already there; you just needed to jump backwards 8 minutes from the credits.