Source Code

I had a super busy weekend – hosting a book launch and being on a total of seven panels – but somehow I also ended up with some free time and watched three or four movies and read two books. It was pretty awesome. One of the movies I saw recently is still kind of loitering in my head, making me think about some of the ethical ramifications of what I saw.

Source Code, which is from Duncan Jones, who did Moon, is a powerful and emotional film about a young man who is in an extraordinary and terrible situation. The trailers I had seen for the film definitely did not do it justice. It's about a million times better than you may have been led to believe.

Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Colter Stevens, an army helicopter pilot. He wakes up on a train, with absolutely no idea of how he got there. A lovely lady, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), who acts like she knows him, sits across from him, chitchatting about the details of a recent life change. Colter is immediately freaked out and starts trying to gather clues to explain how and why he got there. As far as he knows he is in his helicopter flying a mission. As far as Christina is concerned he is a schoolteacher friend of hers, who has been giving her moral and emotional support as she decides if she is really ready to make drastic life choices. After eight minutes of interaction a bomb explodes and Colter is suddenly in a new place, interacting with a woman remotely. (She is later identified as Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin (played by Vera Farmiga)).

She helps him with a series of memory aides and asks him if he found the bomb. She dodges most of his questions and sends him right back to the train, to the precise moment that he last woke up. This time he is supposed to concentrate only on finding the bomb. If he can find the bomb they can figure out who planted it. Once they know who planted it they can figure out how to stop the rest of the planned terrorist events. Time is critically important, but Colter is not a machine and cannot divorce himself from his confusion and emotions.

His strongest impulse is to protect Christina, who he is drawn to. While finding the bomb is important, he also wants to get his new friend off the train, where she will be safe. These two imperatives are his driving forces; save the girl and find the bomb(er).

Of course he also wants to find out what in the world is going on – how he went from in a helicopter flying a mission to being on a train and then in a strange environment, but that curiosity has to take a back-burner to his two primary missions, which sadly conflict with each other.

The film has been compared to Groundhog Day, and also criticized for being too convoluted. It does have something in common with Groundhog Day, in that he may have to keep reliving the same eight minute loop until he gets things right, but in Groundhog Day the protagonist has to become a good man and Colter is already a very good man, a hero even.

I loved the story of Source Code, although it is very, very sad; sad enough to make me cry through about a third of it. (It seems like most of what I am loving these days is super sad.) The story is a little bit complicated, but not so much because of the structure; more because there are some serious ethical problems and Spock's statement of “The good of the many outweighs the good of the few” is kind of called into question.

But there was one thing even better than the story and the questions it raised; namely Jake Gyllenhaal's acting, which is superb. Much of what he does is very subtle, especially his confusion when he first wakes up on the train as essentially a blank slate.

Vera Farmiga is also excellent in her role as Captain Goodwin. This is another character that requires a lot of subtlety as Goodwin is hiding secrets from just about everyone around her. She's fascinating and her struggles with ethics are a large part of what makes this film so good.

You can watch the trailer here but it is kind of spoilery.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is an XKCD strip, by the imitable Randal Monroe. It deals with the quintessential question regarding Hitler and a time machine. I'm sure you know the one.