When I was in graduate schol, I did my dissertation on films about time travel, alternate realities, and other time-bending narratives, a project that grew out of a seminar paper on Twelve Monkeys and Strange Days. The project ended up not working quite as well as I would have liked, as I got lost in my attempts to classify films according to the direction of time travel. But I found myself thinking about that project last night while watching Duncan Jones’ Source Code (IMDB), a follow-up to his trippy debut film, Moon. In particular, I reflected on the degree to which the film’s plot device has been naturalized to the point that audiences need little explanation to grasp what is happening, and although I found the film to be somewhat flawed, it functions well enough as a psychological thriller that engages with questions of fate, destiny, and free will.
Source Code depicts the experiences of Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a wounded Afghanistan War veteran who is sent back into the body of a passenger on a train bound for Chicago that is about to be destroyed in a terrorist attack. Stevens wakes up in the body of a high school teacher named Sean just eight minutes before the explosives are set to go off, killing everyone on board and must figure out the person who planted the bomb to prevent a later terrorist attack from happening. We are given a typical pseudoscientific explanation from the film’s mad scientist, Dr. Rutledge (a cheerfully excessive Jeffrey Wright). As Roger Ebert points out, the scientific implausibilities don’t really matter, because for the most part, it’s clear that the explanation serves a different purpose: we are given a set of narrative rules–Colton has eight minutes to solve the problem, in this case finding the bomber–and then watch as Colton attempts to complete the task he has been assigned.
As a result, Source Code seems to be the latest example of a series of films that follow what Alex Galloway, in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, has described as the “algorithmic form” of many contemporary narratives.* Although Galloway refers primarily to what he calls “films of epistemological reversal,” such as Fight Club or The Matrix, in which our existing understanding of how the world works is undermined, Colton’s quest in Source Code isn’t significantly different than the quest of completing a level of a video game, to the point that Colton, almost immediately, begins to identify specific patterns of repeated activity: a spilled soda, a conversation with the beautiful girl across the aisle. Even the logic of the behavior of the train’s passengers is constrained by how thy are already programmed. Given that the explosion “has already happened,” the train passengers are ostensibly dead, and therefore, Colton’s interactions with them don’t really matter. Much like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Colton begins to see the train as a system, one that can be manipulated by a skillful “player” or user. The film’s paranoid depiction of time and fate–and their relationship to crime prevention–also has affinities with movies such as Minority Report and Twelve Monkeys.
And this is where I think Source Code ultimately “cheats,” to use a gaming term [spoilers follow]. As we learn early in the film, Colton is being sent back in time by a mysterious military organization, one that Colton is able to trace back to a base in Nevada. He receives instructions from Dr. Rutledge and a more sympathetic assistant, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who communicates to him through a computer screen. Colton is told that he is physically dead other than some mild brain activity, but during his visits to the past, he falls in love with a passenger, Christina (Michelle Monaghan as the pretty girl), and desperately hopes to keep her alive, even though he is repeatedly told that the attack has already happened. In one version of Colton’s “game,” he pulls Christina from the train before it explodes, believing he has rescued her, but that reality doesn’t really exist, so he is pulled back to begin the game anew. However, those who have seen the film will know that the narrative resolution “cheats” this logic of time or narrative rule. It’s a typical cheat of time-loop narratives, however: why does the time loop stop once the crime has been solved? Perhaps more telling, Colton is able to prevent the terrorist from ever committing a crime in the first place, which means that the military agency that sends him wouldn’t have any need to send him back, right? Although, I suppose it is entirely possible that the final sequence (when he does prevent the accident from happening) is entirely imagined.
These logical implausibilities don’t undermine the film completely. As Aaron Hillis observes, Colton’s compassion for the train’s passengers is seductive. Even if we are told (somewhat misleadingly) that the attempts to rescue the passenger are doomed, Colton’s “loyalty” make him a likable protagonist (a sense of intimacy that Manhola Dargis also recognizes in her NYT review). At the same time, it’s a film that succeeds in synthesizing a wide range of cinematic, video game, and narrative texts, one that recognizes the ways in which audiences engage with and accept the place of algorithms within cinematic narratives.
Update with Spoilage: One other point worth considering, raised in the comments of this Hollywood Elsewhere post, is that the film allows Colton to essentially take over the identity of Sean Fentress, the mild-mannered teacher/train passenger, whose body Colton inhabits when he travels back in time into the train. Thus, as the film ends and Colton continues to live in Fentress’s body, starting a new life with Christina, Fentress’s entire life history is effaced. Des he have a family? Friends? What about his students? The film can only do this, of course, by making Fentress basically a cypher with little actually personality.
* Another good reference here is Kristen Daly’s recent Cinema Journal article, “Cinema 3.0: The Interactive Image.”