Jake Gillenhaal and Michelle Monaghan in Source Code
Culture Current

Source Code Review

Jake Gillenhaal and Michelle Monaghan in Source Code

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Source Code, a sci-fi suspense film with an incredible storyline. Gyllenhaal plays the role of Colter Stephens, an army captain who finds himself trapped in the body of a man he does not recognize, while seated on a commuter train headed for Chicago.

In front of him is a woman who appears to know him. They chat for eight minutes, and then poof! It’s all gone.

For certain, director Duncan Jones has a knack for blending mystery and disturbing claustrophobia with his characters; if you’ve seen his spectacular film Moon (2009), you’ll know what I’m talking about.

After those initial eight minutes in Source Code, Captain Stephens awakes (as himself this time) strapped to a chair in a capsule resembling a retro lunar module. On a video screen before him is Air Force officer Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), whose job it is to guide him through his mission: find the one responsible for both bombing the train and threatening to destroy Chicago with a dirty bomb.

Goodwin is one officer among many in a special military program designed to use memories, or dreams, for reconnaissance (think Inception). They are using Stephens’ mangled corpse and semi-active brain — yes, he’s 99 percent dead — to input the “source code” of one of the victims of the train bombing. Captain Stephens’ job is to find the bomber in the memories of this victim while inhabiting the virtual body of the victim.

But what gives the government the right to enslave and use his corpse and brainwaves, even if it could save the lives of millions? At one point, Stephens yells, “This can’t be legal what you’re doing.” Dr. Rutledge responds, saying that a military court has sanctioned the program, and that it is Stephens’ duty as a soldier to save lives at the expense of his own.

The crux is that Stephens already gave his life in combat in Afghanistan, and the military has kept his brainwaves going for use in this program. So it begs the question: does the obligation to protect the lives of millions of people justify the forced labour of even one individual?  A similar question is raised in the controversial Unthinkable (Gregor Jordan; 2010) in which Samuel L. Jackson’s character brutally interrogates a Caucasian Muslim man who threatens to detonate nuclear bombs in American cities.

Anytime we make a value judgment concerning right or wrong we are presupposing a basis for it, and likewise there are ethical theories and value systems at play in the decisions made by the characters in this film. Some argue that morality itself doesn’t exist at all as a category — humans simply adapt and survive by nature in community. According to this view, the decision made in Source Code to save millions at the expense of one is purely instinctual or emotive.

Take Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) for example, who is portrayed as somewhat egotistical with regard to the source code program. We are quite sure he is more jazzed by the fact his scientific experiments could work, than by the hope of rescuing the innocent. The greatest justification for his questionable science project is the utilitarian aspect: “Think of all the lives we could save.” But when he argues with Stephens as to why he should continue delving into eight minutes of hell, he states, “This may be difficult for you to hear, but you are [just] a hand on a clock.”

Source Code is intriguing and fast paced. It was filmed to make you feel isolated and alone when Stephens is trapped, and startled every time you’re blown away by bombs on the train. The plot moves mysteriously along — some scenes serve as a harbinger of a hopeful ending — others seem to say that no one can cheat death. My advice is to enjoy this movie, but leave space to consider the underlying values questioned or realized by the main characters, and discover how you agree or disagree with them.