The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Source Code

Written by Dario Llinares.

Photo from the article Panning down over a contemporary American cityscape, the credit sequence of Source Code replays a familiar cinematic opening gambit. With an unerringly sharp visual clarity we are presented with the sprawling expanse of striated modern urbanism; man-made, organised, and a testament to the solidity of human civilisation. The camera glides effortlessly between and above the architectural morphology tracking the journey of a passenger train, perhaps the most representative symbol of modern expansion. Everything about the mise-en-scene, and the precision of its representation is designed to reassure the eye, and thus the brain, of the tangible materiality of the ‘real’.

Such clarity, however, does not last long. Cutting to a close-up of Jake Gyllenhaal, eyes closed, head resting against the window of the train, the opaque shimmering light and the soft focus gives the image an ethereal quality, as if the solid boundary between body and glass has somehow dissolved. In this fleeting aesthetic moment Source Code foregrounds the thematic ambivalences that permeate the film: the fragile edges of reality and fantasy, consciousness and subconsciousness, mind and body, and the often-unreliable nature of our corporeal senses through which we subjectively perceive the world”.

Films that address the nature of consciousness and the link between subjectivity and reality take on some of the central preoccupations of philosophical enquiry. Rene Descartes’ maxim “I think therefore I am” was an attempt to base a philosophy of the mind on a secure rational foundation, yet emerged out of doubts that are at the heart of critical perception. In Meditations he suggests that “the senses deceive from time to time, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those who have deceived us even once”. Uncertainties towards subjective experience have only become immeasurably amplified through the bewildering complexity of postmodernist critical theory, which has since taken questions about the fragmented nature of being and knowing to the extremities of philosophical thought.

<i>The Matrix</i>
The Matrix
Such subject matter has provided fertile ground for cinema, particularly in the genre of Science Fiction. Sci-fi is apposite for the exploration of such themes as it allows filmmakers the power to bend, or even to break, the rules which hold together what are assumed to be the boundaries of reality. Time, space, the material world and their relationship to human experience are, in sci-fi, open to manipulation. Thus, the suspension of disbelief to which all film goers submit to some degree, becomes a process that is challenged not only in the confines of the cinema but in the outside world also. Sci-fi can allow us, for a short time, to delve into the constructedness of perception. In The Matrix (1999) Morpheus is not only challenging Neo but the audience as well when he asks: “How do you define ‘real’? If you are talking about what you can feel, what you can smell what you can taste and see, ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. Such ideas, a frequent pleasure of this genre, engage with the contingency and elasticity of the mind’s world.

There is an important distinction to be made here, however. Science Fiction might broadly be split into two, rather antithetical, subsets. On the one hand there are epic fantasy adventures, which lean primarily on Manichean narrative, spectacular action set-pieces and special effects as their tools. Such films have become a dominant sector in the era of the blockbuster thriving on the development of increasingly perfect CGI simulacra. On the other hand there are examples of more ‘serious’ science fiction films, which attempt to use the genre as a means by which to explore ontological uncertainties or make socio-political critiques using the genre’s almost limitless creative potential. Perhaps the difference between Star Wars(1977) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967) best exemplifies the dichotomous strands of Sci-fi.

Yet this separation between the ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ ends of the sci-fi spectrum is often less pronounced, and has become particularly so recently. Film such as the The Matrix, A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Vanilla Sky, (2001), Minority Report (2002) and Children of Men (2006) engage with cerebrally challenging subject matter while simultaneously deploying stylised aesthetics, action, violence and romance. Arguably the zenith of this genre hybridity came in 2010 with Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Roundly lauded by critics, Inception’s labyrinthine plot, unforgiving pace, huge action set pieces, and epic CGI effects all fed into a pseudo-Freudian exploration of the human subconscious. As suggested in the short review, the success of the film may have inadvertently created a blueprint for future blockbusters, purposely pushing a mainstream audience towards particular kinds of intellectual engagement. More by coincidence than influence, 2011 has already brought us The Adjustment Bureau, and now Source Code continues what might be considered a post-Inception cycle of ‘intelligent’ sci-fi thrillers.


There are common elements to this new cycle of films. One is that their complexity belies a concise description of plot set up. Protagonist Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) awakes on a train not knowing where he is, how he got there nor who the female companion talking to him is. The girl - we find out later her name is Christina (Michelle Monaghan)- addresses him as Sean and seems incredulous at his behaviour, particularly when he tells her he is a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. Checking his wallet, the drivers’ license inside shows an unfamiliar face and name: Sean Fentress. When Stevens stumbles into the bathroom his disorientation is exacerbated, as the face in the mirror does not match the one he knows, or that we, the audience see. This quite patented effect places the viewer firmly in the protagonist’s subjectivity rather than in an objective reality that is shared by all the characters onscreen. In these early moments we are supposed to share the lack of context felt by the protagonist and thus empathise with him. Furthermore, Source Code (like Inception) places the viewer at this early stage into an unexplained and somewhat confusing situation that seems to lie outside an easy, formulaic structure onto which meaning can be summarily attached.

Stevens’ increasing desperation is cut short, however, by a massive explosion, which destroys the train along with him and everyone in it. He then suddenly awakens once again, but this time seemingly in some kind of capsule. Strapped in and unable to move, the darkness and claustrophobia of this new environment gives the impression that Stevens has crash-landed somewhere. The film then begins to give us some context through the figure of Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) who speaks to Stevens through a video link. He asks questions about where he is, and small clues as the context of his situation but still leaving much undisclosed. Goodwin, and a enjoyably sinister and power-hungry scientist, Doctor Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), gradually explain that Stevens is being sent back into the last eight minutes of residual memory belonging to a victim of the train bombing that he has just experienced. His mission is to try and discover the identity of the terrorist who is still on the loose and planning another attack. The eight minutes is the ‘Source Code’ of the title. From then on the narrative plays out in two parallel dimensions or levels of consciousness. One strand follows Stevens being sent back repeatedly into the ‘Source Code’, trying to find the unknown perpetrator. The other narrative strand of the film deals with Stevens trying to understand the actual parameters of his ‘mission’.

The explanation of how Stevens is sent into the ‘Code’, of course, requires a rather large pinch of salt. But initially that is not a problem. Sci-fi requires a viewer to willingly submit to convoluted, and sometimes preposterous, narrative possibilities. At the more mainstream end this allows for the unlimited pleasures of fantasy and escape. In examples of ‘cerebral’ sci-fi, however, spectacular narrative and stylised visuals are secondary to the symbolic exploration of themes and ideas. Duncan Jones’ first feature, Moon (2009), was a superb example of the latter, thoughtfully examining notions of alienation and existential crisis through the simple conceit of a cloned astronaut who discovers he is about to be replaced by another version of himself. In Source Code, Jones attempts to produce a similar kind of effect (and intertextual sci-fi literacy), while incorporating a more mainstream sensibility in terms of plot, action and character. The central problem here is that the contrivances of the narrative increasingly undermine one’s engagement with the thematic and intellectual strands.


Jones captures the protagonist’s disorientation through an effective and yet not overly showy use of editing and special effects. This is enhanced by the performance of Jake Gyllenhaal who is eminently believable as a man attempting to negotiate the transition between two cognitive dimensions. When Stevens re-enters the train the use of swift cuts between seemingly inconsequential moments - a can being opened, coffee being spilt, a conversation on a mobile - engender a kind of heightened unreality. The world of the Source Code thus becomes a cacophony of repeated signifiers. Each time Stevens returns things are the same yet ever so slightly different, therefore asserting the notion that the perfectly detailed texture of what he (and we) see, is constructed. In this way Jones, like Descartes, is postulating that the perception of the mind cannot be wholly trusted.

Some interesting strands arise from the narrative device of recycling the same scene again and again, particularly Stevens’ perverse enjoyment of the freedom that comes from engaging with people you know are already dead (including himself). The replaying of the same scene time and again is perhaps most obviously reminiscent of Groundhog Day (1993) but is also a key element of most films about time travel (think of Marty McFly mirroring his father’s gestures and phrases in Back to the Future [1985]). This is not to say that these ideas are not handled well in Source Code. Indeed Duncan Jones’ knowledge of sci-fi history was a key element in Moon, and is also evident here. As with many contemporary sci-fi films there are also references to a post-9/11 political and social climate. Stevens’ wrongful accusation and assault of an Asian passenger stands as an implicit criticism of how cultural anxieties can easily manifest as racial profiling. However, the bomb plot, as well as Stevens being a pilot in Afghanistan, Rutledge’s assertion that the ‘Source Code’ is a weapon on the ‘War on Terror’, and allusions to the sinister nature of a government/science/military tryst, at time feel a little clichéd and don’t add to the film’s depth.


The possibility of viewing the film as an intellectual interrogation of ideas is problematic for various other reasons. The identity of the terrorist was patently obvious from Stevens second trip into the Source Code, meaning that when this is eventually ‘revealed’ in the context of the plot it undermines the implied complexity of the film as a whole. Furthermore, the crossover between the two distinct realms of Stevens’ subconscious seemed to be obvious in coming, despite being inconsistent with the internal logic of the narrative. What was supposedly an opening of the possibility of multiple realities was thus, in actuality, a rather clunky attempt to engineer a familiar sense of plot resolution. In a film where narrative is secondary this may have been more acceptable. Yet, having been prepared through the intriguing set-up to suspend my disbelief quite radically but accept the continuity of cause and effect, Source Code’s dénouement compromised my engagement with its ideas. This, in turn, means that the themes relating to reality and the subconscious struggle to hold the same symbolic power.

Perhaps I was prejudiced by the brilliance of Moon but in the end I felt that Source Code was an entertaining, if ultimately unsatisfactory, voyage into the liminal space between ‘mainstream’ and ‘serious’ science fiction.

This Alternate Take was published on May 02, 2011.

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