For us biological life forms, there are two primary states of physical being: quick or dead. If you're reading this right now, congratulations. You're alive. Those turkey slices in the fridge? Not so lucky.
But according to Miracle Max from The Princess Bride, there's also a third state: mostly dead. "There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead," Max tells us. "Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do: Go through his clothes and look for loose change."
I suspect Colter Stevens would love to sit down with Miracle Max right about now.
The former Army helicopter pilot has a new gig these days, and it's as confusing as all get-out. Sure, it seems like it'd be a prestigious job: He's a key player in a super-secret counterterrorism unit, the sort of outfit that Jack Bauer couldn't even get into. And it's work the war hero would likely enjoy … if he could remember what it was. Right now, all he really remembers is being locked up in an antiquated metal pod, from which his handlers somehow manage to zap his consciousness …
… into an unsuspecting passenger on a train barreling toward Chicago. A pretty girl sits across from him. She seems to know him a little. She talks about taking another job, frets over her ex-boyfriend. Someone spills soda on his shoe. The train stops, people get off, the train lurches forward again. Then, KABOOOOOOOO …
And just like that, Colter's back in his pod, and his handlers are asking him whether he's found the bomber yet.
After a few return trips to the train—pretty girl, soda, explosion, repeat—things start coming together for Colter. Seems the train blew up in the not-so-distant past, killing everyone on board. But, due to the miracle of modern technology and something known as the source code, his counterterrorism colleagues have the ability to co-opt the consciousness of one of the now-dead passengers eight minutes before the explosion and replace him with Colter. In those final eight minutes—repeated as often as necessary—Colter must figure out who the bomber is before the nefarious mass murderer sets off another, much nastier explosion.
"Source code is not time travel," Rutledge, the code's inventor, tells him. "Rather, it is time reassignment." Translation: Don't worry about the fate of the train or the people on it. Don't worry about offending or hurting or killing anyone. They're already dead. And dead men file no lawsuits.
But are they really? What if they're just mostly dead? What if, somehow, the train could still be saved? What if it's not quite time to look for loose change?
Everyone working for the counterterrorist agency, codenamed Beleaguered Castle, wants to save lives. And they push themselves and each other hard to see that job through.
And no one gets pushed more, or works harder, than Colter. The first time he lands on the train, he has no clue what's happening. (His mind, apparently, has been shaken to its core by the temporal change of scenery.) But as he returns again and again and again, he pieces the puzzle together bit by bit, closing in on the bomber's identity with each new visit. It's dogged, frustrating work—work that forces him to the breaking point. But he does it all the same.
He gradually grows attached to folks on the train—particularly Christina, the first person he sees and someone he begins to fall in love with. Never mind that his relationship with her lasts, technically, just eight minutes. Never mind that this would seem to be the ultimate definition of a dead-end relationship. Colter grows ever more determined to save her, along with the rest of the folks the train. "I'm not asking you to believe me, sir," he tells Rutledge. "I'm asking that you have the decency to let me try." And, when the end seems near for Colter, too, he tries to make peace with his estranged father in the only way available to him.
Goodwin, Colter's main contact in Beleaguered Castle, has tremendous respect for him. And when Colter makes a final request of her, she fulfills it, doing what she believes is the right thing—even though it means the end of her career.
There's no explicit spirituality in Source Code, but it is reminiscent in some ways of the premise in the comedy Groundhog Day, which toys with concepts of fate, second chances and redemption.
Colter and Christina are attracted to each other, and they kiss a couple of times. A joke twists the words "get off" to mean both sexual and nonsexual things. Christina makes a winking comment about sexual dreams.
The train explodes a dozen times, it seems, during the course of Colter's mission. Sometimes it takes place in "real" time—a thunderclap blast and rolling fire. Other times we witness the conflagration in slow motion as it engulfs the passengers inch by inch. It's shown from a distance (a small mushroom cloud in the sky) and at close range. Once, shortly before she's consumed by flame, the camera locks in on Christina's face as her cheeks vibrate with the force of the explosion. The oft-repeated explosions hammer home the film's central message about the brevity of time and about death's inescapability.
Colter is ordered to do whatever he has to in order to find the bomber: You can't hurt dead people, he's told. And he takes that counsel to heart, roughing up passengers, snatching their belongings, waving pistols at them and handcuffing one person to the train. But he rarely escapes unscathed. In one scenario, Colter and Christina wind up dead (or dying) in a parking lot, both shot. In another, he follows a suspicious-looking man off the train and rifles through his bag. The man tries to make him stop, and the two get into a fight—one that eventually sends Colter flying into the path of an oncoming train. (We hear the impact.) Elsewhere, he jumps off the train and tumbles to a bruising, harrowing stop. He's beaten, bloodied and tasered.
Finally, one of the film's most graphic scenes pictures a man who is nearly dead, the lower portion of his body gone and part of his brain exposed.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word, about five s-words and a few other scattered profanities, including "a‑‑" and "h‑‑‑." God's name is misused a half-dozen times, the majority of which involve it being combined with "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused twice.
Drug and Alcohol Content
We hear a conversation about a passenger on the train who was arrested for driving under the influence.
Other Negative Elements
The film mulls just how valuable a human life is, and it does so by putting most of its characters in that "mostly dead" state of being I mentioned earlier. But they're only there artificially, it turns out—kept alive by the source code's science. Pull the plug, and they're gone—something one characters longs to have happen to him. He wants to to be allowed to slip away quietly. Yet doing so would compromise the mission of Beleaguered Castle.
Is it then selfish for him to want that "release"? And from his compatriots' perspective is it murder, not to kill him, but to allow him to die? The film suggests that granting someone that final peace is a gift, and a reasonable one at that. Ethically, though, the truth may be a bit murkier.
Also problematic: If we take Colter's insistence that the lives on the train are not lost—that their fates can be altered—it brings up a very serious question about Sean Fentress, the man whose body Colter inhabits. [Spoiler Warning] It's telling that I've not mentioned Sean's name until now. The movie does its best to make us forget such a person exists. If Sean is dead, along with all the other passengers, there aren't quite as many prickly ethical issues to grapple with.
But he's not. Colter succeeds in saving the train. He and Christina walk into a beautiful Chicago day together—the first, we sense, of many days they'll share.
So what of Sean, then? Where has he gone? At best, Colter and Beleaguered Castle are guilty of an abhorrent form of thievery—stealing not only someone's body, but someone's entire life. At worst, they've out-and-out killed the guy, and stolen his potential girlfriend to boot. From Sean's point of view, Source Code ends on a disturbing, perhaps terminal, Invasion of the Body Snatchers note.
Source Code inhabits cinematic territory that reminds me of Inception. Like that film, this one strives to be a thinking man's actioner, if not quite as trippy or intense as Christopher Nolan's mind-bending tale.
That said, I suspect the makers of Source Code don't really want us to think too much. Because if you devote too many brain cells to puzzling out the ethical implications of what's happening onscreen, you might find that our hero actually looks a little villainous, that his sacrifices may actually be driven by selfishness.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jake Gyllenhaal as Colter Stevens; Michelle Monaghan as Christina; Vera Farmiga as Carol Goodwin; Jeffrey Wright as Rutledge
Duncan Jones ( )
April 1, 2011
July 26, 2011